System(s): PC, PS4
Release Date: May 20th, 2014
Publisher (Developer): SuperGiant Games (SuperGiant Games)
ESRB Rating: “Teen” for Mild Language and Violence
Transistor feels like the sophomore effort of a band. The difficult second album that comes with the pressures and expectations of an audacious debut. Likewise, in a sea of AAA titles that feel engineered and manufactured SuperGiant’s Bastion often felt composed. Transistor carries the same recognizable hand of the creators, distinct voices in each element of the game. The art, the music, the world design, it is all unmistakably the work of SuperGiant.
In more than a few ways, Transistor feels like a counterpoint to the successes of Bastion. Bastion took place in a lush, overgrown world that slowly built up around you, with a heavy action focus. By contrast Transistor exists in a world very much built by human hands, all right angles and urban structures, slowly being erased. Combat primarily takes place in an action point driven system, attacks and moves stacked up not unlike recent Fallouts’ VATS system. It feels like a statement by SuperGiant, quick to try a new direction and provide something new for both themselves and the players.
Our story begins in media res, with Red, our protagonist, removing the titular Transistor from her partner’s body. Logan Cunningham again returns in the role of the Transistor’s voice. Here he performs a more intimate role than the narrator from SuperGiant’s previous work, thrust into the situation alongside you, left to piece things together along with you. Cunningham’s performance is exceptional, providing a distinct voice and character to your companion. With Red left voiceless by the Camerata, our antagonists, Cunningham provides much of the pathos of the game.
The Camerata themselves remain a mystery for most of the narrative, their motivations and personas often suggested rather than outright explicated. Most of the writing carries this same sense of economy. Rejecting the trend of dense, overwritten prose that AAA favors, writer Greg Kasavin trusts us to put it all together ourselves. Kasavin often plays with subtext within the flavor text and dialogue, all brought out by the nuanced performances of each voice actor. It’s an intelligent move that leaves a lot of room for discussion of themes, characters, and the world itself.
Cloudbank itself provides its own character, a hyper digital vision of a world defined by a collective voice. Cloudbank quickly becomes overrun by The Process, a malevolent digital force that overwrites, whitewashes and breaks down Cloudbank. You’ll become well acquainted with The Process over the length of the story. As you overcome their numbers The Process will take new forms and functions, constantly forcing you to switch up the tactics you use to take them down. Here Transistor’s “Turn()” planning mode comes into play. Drop into Turn() mode and time stands still, allowing you to burn up action points to chain together a stream of attacks in high speed upon exiting. The key is to play smart, backstabbing, performing follow up combos and picking the right attack for the situation. It gives the game the rhythm of a rock song, quiet buildups to loud choruses of combat, progressive melodies carrying it forward.
In keeping with the theme, each of these moves are name Functions(), mimicking programming language. Each of these Functions() performs a discrete role, nothing is made redundant by another. Instead function can be used in three ways, as a primary attack, as a modifier for a move, or as a passive bonus. Mixing these together will create new behaviors and change the way you approach situations. The more advanced uses of the Functions() are introduced via optional challenges, which reward you with additional experience as well. This experience will of course unlock further Functions(), additional skill slots, and Limiters(), which provide restrictions that reward you with more experience and additional challenge. It all feeds back into a system that constantly gives you a sense of progression, rather than the granular progress typical of the genre.
Cleverly, Transistor also forces you to change up your tactics. Functions() overload when your health is depleted, temporarily restricting them from use and forcing you to try new combinations and tactics rather than simply finding one effective combo and sticking with it throughout. It’s a smart solution to a problem that often causes fatigue in other games and is emblematic of the kind of level of detail and consideration that has been put into the design. Nothing in Transistor feels as if it has been created without serious thought. The economical approach pervades not only the writing, but the every element of the game. It all pushes towards that same sense of constant progression present in the combat, feeding you tidbits and mysteries to draw you further into the world and narrative. Transistor is all questions, and the answers are scattered to corners and crevices, requiring a keen eye and inquisitive mind to unravel. Even then, Transistor is likely to leave you with many incomplete thoughts to finish yourself. It’s been composed in a way that leaves everything open ended so that even when you leave the world it has created you’ll continue to carry it with you. All of it builds up to one of the most satisfying climaxes in recent history, a breath releasing positive tension built up from the first moment.
Transistor carries a brevity that feels almost entirely absent from the modern form of the medium. In a genre where 100 hour playtimes and endless, compulsive streams of content are the norm, SuperGiant have create something that is dense, personal, and involving. Transistor is a game that you continue to engage with long after you’ve completed it. There is a breath of tactics that begs exploration and a story filled with a sense of dramatic weight that would fail to be carried by any game less considered. Transistor begs to be played again not simply because it is entertaining, but because you want to engage with, to understand it. It’s a puzzle that you keep turning over in your mind, its characters, mechanics, and world occupying great chunks of your consciousness. It deserves to be discussed in more than a thousand word review.