Transistor Review

By Brandon Fusco,
A woman stands over the slumped body of a man with a sword running through his chest. You know nothing about what’s going on until the sword glows and a voice flows forth from your controller.

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You might be forgiven for thinking that “in medias res” is a term trademarked by Supergiant Games, creators of the recently released Transistor. Transistor finds our protagonist, Red, thrust headlong into a strange, colorful world guided by a talking sword.

Story is at the heart of the game and everything works in service to it. A series of unfortunate events leads to a group of machines called the Process taking over the city of Cloudbank. As the people of the city begin to die around Red, the Transistor is able to store their essence. One of these people serves as a constant companion and talks from inside the sword throughout the game. For much of the game, this is the only voice that you hear, heightening a feeling of isolation.

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This unique sword and its absorption ability are at the core of the story. Transistor absorbs the cores of the Process to level up and absorbs the souls of people to learn new abilities. However, the importance of this ability highlights one of the games niggling flaws. Early on, you actually cross paths with the various souls that make up Red's early ability set but after the initial few, this aspect disappears only to resurface later when the plot calls for it. This interesting method of acquiring abilities is replaced by simply leveling up. What was once a novel and intimate system for acquiring new abilities becomes boringly familiar and rote.

There's more to learn and unlock through experimentation.There's more to learn and unlock through experimentation.

Since each of these abilities, called functions, is the essence of a person, using them unlocks details about the person’s life. To completely unlock the details for each person, each function must be used in each of the three different types of slots for at least one battle, creating a cycle where experimentation is rewarded with more information. Each of these functions has attributes that make it unique and they can all be used either as an active skill, a passive skill, or a modifier. For instance, Spark(), which creates several bomblets that deal damage, could be modified with Bounce() so that the bomblets bounce and deal damage twice. You could also reverse their roles so that rather than shooting a single ricocheting projectile, Red will fire several. Alternatively, Bounce() could be applied to one of the passive slots to create a shield to deflect attacks.

Any ability can be put in any type of slotAny ability can be put in any type of slot

The pacing of combat is an unfamiliar mix of real time combat and time frozen strategy. The player has the ability to freeze time and plan a set of moves before watching as they are executed nearly instantly. There was an undeniable sense of power tempered with immense vulnerability after its use. For a short time after the execution of moves, Red is unable to use almost any of her abilities, creating a sense of tension as she scurries across the battlefield trying to avoid death.

Plan wisely for maximum effect.Plan wisely for maximum effect.

It’s the small moments and details of the game that really shine. When time is frozen, the world sinks away and the sound is replaced by just a calming hum from Red. She was a popular singer in Cloudbank but has lost her voice and that hum is the most that she can muster. With such a simple thing, her loss and loneliness becomes palpable. At other times, single still images, rather than drab exposition, are used to convey entire plot points.

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The small cast of core characters has their own motivations that drive the story, though in some cases, they tend to be archetypal. Other characters, such as Red or the man in the sword, are a little deeper. The exploration of their relationship and how they fit into this world is one of the main pulls of the game. It’s hard to not get attached and root for these two to the end.

Despite the remarkable storytelling, these predictable characters are one of the biggest flaws in the game. When characters end up so predictable, it can detract from the story. Elements of classic storytelling are also present here, which reveals a certain level of predictability that’s at odds with the wonder found in the art style.

The other main pull is how the art style and sound design convey that story. When done correctly, like in Transistor, these elements aren’t just beautiful but evocative. Cloudbank is a dark city with bright neon lights. Over time, this façade fades away and these locales become deserted, the lights dim. As the city is slowly taken over by the Process, it starts to feel sterile to the point of foreboding.

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Fans of Supergiant’s previous game, Bastion, are likely well aware of the standout aspects of this game. The solid gameplay, beautiful art, and interesting world are on display. The length has been trimmed to a leaner 6-8 hours. While this brings a greater focus to the story, it makes the world feel a little less grand and fantastic. This is only a minor loss, however, since what it loses in size, it makes up for in depth. This depth is there for those that are interested, but, for those who aren't, skipping over these details doesn't harm the main story. It’s hard to resist the urge to dig out these details regardless.

Each test type has its own challenges.Each test type has its own challenges.

The trophy list is similarly lean. Most of the trophies can be acquired just by playing the game several times over, reaching the maximum level or unlocking the information present in the souls of the Transistor. The tougher trophies are those linked to completing the tests unlocked progressing throughout the game. Initially, these won’t be too difficult and they all serve to improve your skills with the combat system. Some of the later tests will require a fine understanding of the game and several attempts, but these aren't generally as hard as the trials from Bastion. The toughest of these require completion of a number of battles while under a handicap and these have the potential to cause both a great deal of frustration and a great feeling of accomplishment.

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Transistor is an incredible and beautiful ride. It has some minor flaws that undermine the experience somewhat, but these are easy to put aside when there is so much begging for your attention. When a game is so focused, it’s hard not to marvel at all of the pieces working in concert to create such an intriguing world.

The reviewer played Transistor for 12 hours, enough time to finish the game twice and collect all of the trophies. Review copy of the game was purchased by the reviewer.
Brandon Fusco
Written by Brandon Fusco
Brandon is an Editor and TGN's Host with the Most. The most what? The most opinions, the most understanding wife, and the most *funny cat videos. Previously Host of the Trophy Talk Podcast. (*Not Verified)