Transistor Review

Posted by Calum 30 May 2014

Transistor is a paradox of a game. I adore almost everything about it. It`s world, the way it sounds and how breath takingly stunning everything looks in it. I also love the way you interact with the world, a smart tactical combat system that encourages experimentation and thought. However, I did say almost everything. There is one flaw I find that almost shatters the beautiful illusion of Transistor’s universe, and it kills me to say but it almost ruins the game for me.

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Transistor is the newest release from Supergiant Games, the creators of the truly excellent Bastion, and it`s influence very much shines in their latest offering.  You will follow Red, a famous singer in the futuristic city of Cloudbank. For reasons unknown, your voice has been stolen and your only companion is the sword-like entity known as the Transistor, which will talk to you and help Red piece together what has happened to her city. People are dying, and the city is being swarmed by a group of dangerous robots, known as the Process.  You will spend the rest of your adventure trying to find out what has happened and how to fix it, hopefully returning Red`s famous voice in the process.  This will involve you travelling all around Cloudbank and it`s surroundings and this is where Transistor will start to amaze you.

The art style and music work together so perfectly to create real depth to the world with large scale buildings packed tightly together to give a sense of a busy city. They work in tandem to also conjure one of the most prevailing emotions from the game. Isolation.  Seeing these wide open city areas entirely deserted, paired with songs composed of either slightly harsh electronic music in more active sections, or largely solo guitar pieces with heavy amounts of reveb to really drive that solitary feeling, really strengthening the relationship between Red and her computerised counterpart.  In particular, the song “We All Become” again showcases the incredible voice of Ashley Barrett (The vocalist behind the famous “Build that Wall” from Bastion). She is a staggeringly talented artist, as is the composer Darren Korb, and I recommend you seek out the soundtrack to both Transistor and Bastion as soon as you possibly can. Both the art style and music are just staggering. A great deal of work has gone into it, and it shows.

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This style is backed up by an incredibly clever combat system. While it behaves like it`s predecessor at first, appearing to be an action RPG, it quickly reveals it`s true nature. This is that of the Turn() mechanic. You have the ability to freeze time and queue up a series of actions on any target, then execute those actions as enemies are slowed in time. Think of the game Frozen Synapse, and you will have an idea of how
Turn() works. This makes offensive situations much more tactical, requiring you to plan and think about priority targets, your own positioning and how best to deal with the current threating situation in front of you. This system would be nothing, however, without skills to execute, and this is a style of skill management I am shocked has never been used before. Each ability can be used in one of three ways. An active ability, one of four which you can use to actually do things in combat, a modifier of an active ability or passive character ability. This means you can use an skill in various circumstances, encouraging experimenting to find the set-up you like.  There is also a very shrewd aspect to the varying skill system. Each skill is linked to a character in the world. As you use a skill in one of the three position, you unlock more of this characters story, adding to the lore of the world.

I did say there is one aspect of Transistor I am disappointed with, and it is linked to the story of the world. By the end of the game, after the very emotional ending sequence, I was left with more questions than I had answers. And this is not in the “Oh I hope there is a squeal because what happens to x,y,z now,” way, more in the “wait, you havn`t explained half of this stuff”. As the credits rolled I found myself trying to figure out the motivations of characters and meanings of certain plot points, more than I was being reflective about my experience.  What I was left with was the feeling of an incomplete story. At time of writing I have completed the game once, having used all skills available in every position and done around 50% of the side activities. I`d say I have done just about everything I can do on a first play through. I have a suspicion I shouldn`t be having these questions. If the story is buried so deep down that I can`t find it on a first playthrough, I’d argue that it hasn`t done a great job of telling me what it wants to tell me for the past 5 hours I played it.  What is ultimately upsetting about all this is that I know the developer can do better. While Bastion was slow at telling it`s tale, it felt complete at the end. I understood most of the world and it`s characters, and what everyone was trying to achieve. I had no such experience with Transistor, and that makes me painfully upset.

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Transistor is an excellent game. Mechanically and artistically it is close to perfection. It is an incredible five hour experience that I will have a hard time forgetting, especially with style and class this memorable. This makes it all the more saddening that the story just does not match up to every other aspect of the game.  If you choose to play Transistor, I guarantee you`ll love it. If you end your experience scratching your head and wondering why you don`t quite get what just happened, don`t say I didn`t warn you.