Game Review

by Dave Riley,



Transistor performs well as both a Turn-Based and Action RPG. It provides a dense customization system and fantastic art and sound, though its length and storytelling leave a little to be desired.

Transistor's style is bursting at the seams, its Art Deco influence apparent in its geometric landscape and the Transistor's rigid circuitry, its Art Nouveau leanings in the organic, snaking curlicues at the corners of Red's promo posters. Red is a recently-mute singer, who along with her gabby greatsword, the Transistor, fights waves of enemy robots in a straight-line trek across the very pretty post-apocalypse of Cloudbank, a people-free Tech-Noir city whose Roaring 20s skyscrapers sometimes conspire with the game's isometric camera to obscure the action.

It plays like the natural evolution of the 90s Action RPG: dodging, shooting, and stabbing, but without God of War or Devil May Cry's discrete combos. Powers with code-crunching names like Crash!() and Ping() slot into the Transistor's memory and give Red access sword swipes and laser beams. Combat is weighty. The Transistor has some heft, given the way Red lugs it about, and all of its attacks bear substantial recovery time; however, Red also has access to "Turn," an ability that converts the game into a Strategy RPG for ten second chunks. Proper planning lets Red wipe out multiple enemies before they can even react, but it's followed by a cooldown during which Red can't attack, only evade. Turn makes the combat both action and traditional RPG at once. You can play it like faster-paced Parasite Eve, running around and dodging shots while Turn charges, or you can play it straightforward, take hits and smack bad guys in real time.

Level ups dole out powers at a measured pace, giving you more than enough time to experiment with your new bomb, rebound shot, or doggy companion--"Help," effectively an extra party member, since she gets her own command inputs during Red's Turns. There are more options than you have time to use in a single playthrough. Powers can augment any other power or provide a completely separate passive buff. You can slot Friend into Help to make her bark charm enemies or you can put Friend into a passive slot, where it spawns friendly peashooters after each enemy kill. You can slot a bomb in your dodge to turn your evasion into an offense or you can keep it simple and spend your Turns doling out Void to weaken an enemy's defenses before one-shotting them with Cull's short ranged uppercut.

Like Red's abilities, most enemies are built for synergy. The desire to explode the giant jackhammer stomping your face in, or the stealthy robo-wolf who just materialized right in front of you, is balanced by the need to eliminate antenna that provide shielding bubbles, tentacles that spot heal, and cameras that obscure your vision with lush, full-color headshots. You've always got decisions to make, and Turn gives you the time to make them, but you have to check your pace: destroyed enemies morph into a "cell," which must be collected before it regenerates into a fully-refreshed foe. You have to kill enemies quickly, but not so quickly that you can't stop them from coming back. Battles in Transistor are puzzles of priority.

This is especially true with certain Limiters engaged, difficulty boosts that cause enemy deaths to spawn extra cells, poisonous cells, or, most deviously, armored cells you can't collect until you break their shield, which makes killing an enemy during Turn a risky proposition. Limiters add a richness to the opposition that matches the richness of your abilities. The game starts out fairly easy, but some later battles, especially in New Game!+, are so frantic and enemy stuffed they're nearly impossible without tactical Turn use. Some enemies have time stop powers similar to Red, and those few battles are effectively turn based, their traded blows interspliced with cat and mouse sprints while cooldowns recover.

Everything in the game has its own story to tell. The Transistor's abilities come from absorbing Traces, soul-like remnants of human beings, whose biographies unlock as you use their powers in battle. These data logs are how you get most of your information about Cloudbank, but the writing is all chunky paragraphs with lots of detail and little context. Transistor's story keeps its cards close to its chest. You may come through the game's five or six hour run knowing you played something gorgeous, but without a great idea of what the accidentally unleashed, all-consuming robo-plague was really about. The ending is built on an emotional core that doesn't concern itself with the nitty-gritty technology of a sci-fi metropolis; which would be fine, if game hadn't spent hours inundating you with newsletters, terminal messages, and philosophical musings on the rights and wrongs of a technological super city run on what looks like pure-strain democracy by way of Facebook polls. As such, the game is split into two distinct parts: the technobabble that probably needed another editing pass, and Red's relationship with the Transistor, which is more concerned with humanity than technology, despite one of its participants being a sentient cybersword.

The sword, a literal ghost in a literal machine, is a bit on the chatty side. Probably emboldened by the overwhelming praise for Bastion's narrator, Supergiant gave the Transistor something to say in every conceivable instance. Some of this is nice--he speaks to Red with a quiet intimacy, a tone rarely found in video games--but most of it is patter. A lot of "head that way," "go up those stairs," "look at that thing," "how about this place?" "don't you remember when…?" Depending how quickly you move through the world, Transistor will speak without a second's pause. He'll tell you to look at a terminal, then he'll comment on the terminal's contents, then he'll comment on the message you write back to the terminal comments. None of it is bad, but the frequency of the bland, instructional dialogue often threatens to overwrite the sentimental, interesting stuff. It makes you wish they let the game have more moments of quiet, because the quiet moments are some of the game's best.

It's a game with a lot of bests. Transistor has no title screen, just an elaborate painting of Red and her sword, which does not move or change until you tell it to. Then the game begins without a difficulty select, or an options menu, or anything that would take you out of the moment. Everything in Transistor is in the moment. There's a single overt load when you start the game. Everything else is you playing it, whether that's stabbing robots, or pausing after a hectic nightclub battle to watch a tragic, fallen form--part robot, part ghost--clamber her wounded way towards a spotlight already gone, or the little 2D interludes, load screens disguised as shadowplays, where you can hold a button to have Red spur her motorcycle and send her jacket whipping in the wind.

Transistor's mechanics never bottom out. Every power combination is the best combination, until you find one an hour later you like even better. It's short, but it almost begs you to play New Game!+, where every fight is saturated with enemy synergy, and your tools only become more diverse. It's easy to forgive a game's minor flaws when its passion is so obvious. It's easy to come away from Transistor without really caring that the sword never shuts up, or that great swathes of the plot don't really gel, or that the game ends before you've finished exploring every inch of every attack power.

Transistor is a game that explores the soul; it's also a rare game that appears to actually have one. Its combat resounds with as many thoughtful embellishments as its art design, and maybe the reason the story rings disappointing is because leaving so much of it unexplained makes it feel inconsequential, when everything around it is anything but. Transistor's main problem is making you wish every piece of it was as good as the best pieces of it. The design--art, game, sound, whatever--overflows with passion, and it's hard to fault passion like this, even when it blinds creators to the flaws of their work. Transistor has a button that spotlights Red while she hums along with the background music. It doesn't have any purpose at all, except to give you time to stop, and think, and appreciate a small game injected with such style, such heart, such density of concept, that it can hardly keep its balance.

Overall : B+
Graphics : A
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : A
Presentation : B-

+ Exceptional combat and customization
Short length limits combat's time to shine, narrative is both overly wordy and purposefully vague

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