written by Lauren Bond (@RandomTuesday)
I was incredibly excited for the release of Transistor; I chose to cosplay Red immediately after seeing the release trailer, made a beeline for the demo at PAX Prime and refreshed steam constantly until the game started downloading. Which is all to say, the game exceeded my very excited expectations and is a must play for those who like RPG games, gorgeous design or emotionally poignant storytelling.
Transistor is the second game by Supergiant Games, following the highly acclaimed Bastion. For those that played Bastion there are a a handful elements shared by both games, chief among them being the voice acting of Logan Cunningham, isometric projection and stunning visuals and sound design. While those familiar with Bastion may notice a few other smaller similarities, there is no doubt that the two games are distinctly different.
The visuals are the first most striking component of Transistor, integrating Art Deco style with cyberpunk aesthetic, the game creates the rich and vast cityscape of Cloudbank. The visuals across the game are consistently compelling; from user interfaces, character and enemy design, and cut scenes (or paintings as they may be better called). The visuals are complemented by the sound design. The protagonist of Transistor is a singer and her music is woven throughout the game, serving to highlight who this story is about, in combination with instrumental pieces and sound effects that all work in concert with each other. Supergiant Games have created a game that emphasizes the art that is involved in game design, using it to excellent effect to draw and hook the player into their world and story.
The gameplay is another area where Transistor shines, in particular the unique blend between a real-time and turn based combat system. In the game, you have the ability to freeze time and plan a set of moves that will be executed in quick succession. The result of this is that as a player you are forced to think more tactically in combat but are also given more time to do so. The enemies you fight, also get smarter, instead of just having more health and dealing more damage you have to contend with new abilities and constraints. Combat becomes more about strategy (and yes running around) and less about button mashing.
Added to this, are the powers that are gained through the game, all powers can be used as an upgrade, a base attack or a passive power – each giving different abilities. Which brings me to one of the parts I most enjoyed, using the powers in the different ways unlocks further information about characters in the games (including Red), which really encourages players to try out new combinations of abilities. I won't lie I came up with a few really terrible power load-outs, but it did help me find ones that I really enjoyed, as well as feeding my thirst for knowledge about the world.
Beyond combat, the game encourages exploration. Hiding interfaces with the city called OVC, observation points and a few other side moments, which all serve to build the world and immerse the player. Similarly, there is a home base of sorts that pops up periodically giving opportunities to hone skills and mull thoughts, as well as enjoy the excellent soundtrack. I would recommend playing the game with a controller, the keyboard and mouse set up is less intuitive and a little clunker than the excellent controller interface.
Lastly but certainly not leastly, the story of Transistor is what kept me playing, full of intrigue and catastrophe it packs a narrative punch for a short game (some slight spoilers in this section). The story revolves around a failed assassination attempt of Red, a singer in the city of Cloudbank, and her mission that overtime evolves from finding answers and revenge, to saving the city and seeking justice. There are times where the plot becomes muddy and hard to follow (the lack of a story log means you have to remember what is happening). In addition, the story is a slow reveal, in the beginning as a player I was somewhat confused about what was happening, but I felt this tied well with the confusion of the protagonist putting me into her shoes.
Red is a character that despite her silence, speaks volumes through her actions – from her initial decision to pursue those who came after her, to the final decision at the end of the game, she is a woman who in the face of a perilous situation rises to the challenge to protect that which she cares about most. The emotional core of the story is the relationship between the man now inside the Transistor and Red, their interactions reveal the true loss that has occurred in the game, and deepen the stakes of the story. The phenomenal voice work of Logan Cunningham played no small part in making a talking sword come to life. I do want to add a footnote about the games inclusion of diversity, having a female protagonist and characters who were bi, gay and non-binary gender, is pretty great. In all, the characters were real and the narrative compelling, with moments that made me laugh and others that brought me close to tears – I had a lot to process after the game was done.
Overall, the game is a cohesive unit of beautiful design, compelling game play, and emotionally poignant story telling. I recommend Transistor to anyone, and will shortly be starting another run through. See you in the country.
+ Stunning design, seamless sound and visual design create an immersive world
+ Unique blend of real time/turn based combat
+ Emotionally engaging story and characters
- The occasional plot hole/lack of logical connection
- Best used with a controller, keyboard controls are a bit clunky