Unlike several years ago when Supergiant Games released their debut title Bastion, there’s now a certain level of expectation. Given its success, the studio finds itself in an arguably more pressurised situation because whatever follow up they would go on to produce would inevitably be compared to its predecessor.
This is even more relevant considering Transistor is made from very similar action RPG DNA, at least upon first glance. Beneath though, lies a more measured experience and one that not only improves upon the aspects that made Bastion so enjoyable but also steers in new and tremendously ambitious directions.
Cloudbank, a modular and hyper technologically connected city, forms the backbone of Transistor’s mysterious narrative. It’s an intentionally nebulous and loose story that opens in medias res, with protagonist Red stumbling upon the Transistor; a powerful weapon and tool of creation with the ability to bridge the gap between humanity and technology.
It’s daring both in terms of thematic content and execution, with much left to the player’s interpretation. Cleverly, the discovery process surrounding supporting characters’ backstory and motivations is integrated directly into the core gameplay mechanic, one of several ways the game encourages experimentation with a surprisingly robust and flexible combat system.
A maximum of four functions can be placed on the action bar. All functions can also be used to augment active functions as well as being utilised to gain passive buffs. While not every individual combination has a completely unique outcome, the customisation possibilities are still staggering. Unlocking a new function and seeing how it can integrate and consequently wildly change existing strategies and open up entirely new ones, is a thrill that persists from beginning to end.
While it is possible to approach encounters in a standard action RPG manner, it’s also possible to freeze time and queue up actions that then execution in rapid succession. The system is an immensely satisfying one that isn’t afraid to surface the battle log, presenting important statistics like damage combos and status information in a way that never feels overwhelming. Taken in tandem with the exceedingly deep customisation options, Transistor’s combat mechanics become some of the most refreshing in recent memory.
The game is a mostly linear one but there are other activities to take part in outside of the main quest line. The beach functions as an almost literal sandbox, an area players can visit to take a break from the action and soak in more of Transistor’s incredibly well realised world, whether that be through spinning some vinyls of the soundtrack on a record player or merely taking in the staggeringly beautiful virtual sunrise and sunset.
The beach also acts as gateway to optional challenge rooms, which come in several different varieties, each with the intention of testing combat skills under certain constraints. The Planning Room for example requires all enemies to be dispatched in one turn. They quickly become quite challenging and it’s a shame there aren’t a few more.
Transistor follows in Bastion’s footsteps by allowing players to alter difficulty on the fly through the use of unlockable ‘limiters’. There are ten in total and they can be used together in any combination, resulting in significant variations in enemy behaviour and how abilities can be used. It makes for an enjoyable extra challenge and adds significant replay value, as does the fact that spawn patterns are mixed up on subsequent playthroughs.
Transistor takes an unusual approach to death, in that most games simply revert back to a prior save state upon failure but here the punishment is the overloading of one of the four currently active functions, taking it out of rotation for a brief period of time. This forces players to experiment with less commonly used functions. It’s another neat design touch in a game that has clearly been created with meticulous oversight.
The world of Cloudbank City is realised remarkably well. Most of its aesthetic make up consists of hand drawn artwork from the immensely talented Jenn Zee, with the only actual polygonal models being the characters. Often this approach has resulted in an awkward mix of what are two very different and distinct styles but here the blend works tremendously well, the pairing a highly complementary one. This utterly mesmerising visual artistry is but a single part of what makes Transistor’s universe feel so alive, in spite of its impending doom and worsening decay.
Greg Kasavin’s writing, while obscure, is just as immersive. The words he puts in the mouth of returning voice actor Logan Cunningham are simultaneously poignant, light-hearted, and mean a lot while saying very little. Environments are awash with numerous minute world building touches from the random pieces of information to interactive terminals that serve to give greater context and occasionally act as a sounding board for silent protagonist Red who has literally had her voice stolen.
The narrative is rich with questions of technology interfacing with nature, the consequences of this, and just what type of society can function in super networked environment where everything, even the colour of the sky, can change with ease. It doesn’t forgo intimacy either as it’s ultimately a love story of two individuals, one without a body and one without a voice, needing each other to feel complete, and an effective one at that. It gives just enough to the player while at the same time asking them to do a little bit of work to uncover extra details, details which are wisely linked in with the combat mechanics in a contextually appropriate manner.
Darren Korb and Ashley Barrett form the final piece of the atmospheric picture and their contributions cannot be overstated enough, with a post-rock soundtrack that soars to dizzying hopeful highs and dives into murky darkness with ease.
Transistor is the outcome of a number of exceptionally talented individuals in their respective fields coming together in the most wonderful way imaginable. Its elegant beauty extends far beyond its skin with a depth of heart lying beneath, one that ripples out into every other facet in a way few games can boast of.
Transistor is available now on PS4 and PC.
The soundtrack can be listened to and purchased on Supergiant Games’ Bandcamp page.