Supergiant Games have been busy since the release of their last smash-hit, Bastion, and have returned with a brand new sci-fi themed action RPG that is out of this world. As a fan of Bastion, I was especially excited to hear that Supergiant Games were in the progress of creating something entirely new, and boy was I not disappointed! The game features a multitude of perfectly executed design choices that will leave you drooling at the screen. Straight from the get go, Transistor throws you into this beautifully drawn world, and much like Bastion, it features a narrator driven plot; because, why change a formula that has been tried and tested and works so well, right?
Transistor is one of those games that will captivate you in every way possible; driving you to keep playing to uncover the mysteries that are presented in the story, and to encouraging you to piece together the backstory of what happened to the main protagonist, “Red.” Unlike Bastion, Red is a female lead character, and even though she is silent throughout, the game she is portrayed as being very strong willed and a total bad ass in combat; through clever use of narrative structure. Don’t get me wrong, Red also displays effeminate characteristics that help to drive her narrative purpose, but I always find it refreshing to see a strong lead female act in the game.
Transistor is set in the sci-fi world of Cloudbank, in which our protagonist, Red, is a famous opera singer. During one of her performances, however, she is attacked by a group called the Camerata and their robotic army called “The Process.” During the fight, she is mysteriously transported all the way to the other side of Cloudbank, and, as a result, comes into contact with the mysterious “Transistor”; a giant greatsword-like weapon which she was supposed to be assassinated with. The Transistor is buried into the chest of an as-of-yet unnamed man (who appears to be close with Red), now deceased; amazingly, though, the consciousness and voice of this man appears to have been absorbed into the transistor itself. The Camerata will now stop at nothing to track down Red and the Transistor using The Process; wanting to take the mysterious weapon for some yet-unknown cause.
One feature that people will be most familiar with, if they played Bastion, is that the entire story is narrated by an unseen character that explains in great detail what the protagonist is doing. Transistor, however, takes this to a new level, and in this case, the narrator is the actual Transistor weapon itself. This as a narrative plot point is simply ingenious and the amount of attention to detail that the narrator gives is captivating on many levels. Red may be silent throughout the game, but the Transistor makes it feel like she is speaking unsung volumes of trials and tribulations, and, as a result, you have a strong character, as well as a game you can really connect with.
Another way that Transistor helps deliver a rich story is through the use of random landmarks and points of interest. Upon interaction with such landmarks, the Transistor will sometimes reveal a little bit of key information about the game world, or in other cases, about Red’s personal life; which, in turn, helps to build up a rapport between the player and Red’s character. There are also several terminals placed throughout the world that, through smart use of message boards and news advertising, help setup various background storylines, as well.
Transistor is a game that is pushing the boundaries of narrative-defined gameplay, and so far, it has been incredibly successful at pulling me into a wonderfully constructed world that the developers have so thoughtfully presented. Supergiant Games are not afraid to experiment with different ideas, and to weave those ideas into a well driven game. Let us take the combat system, for example. The game is very much a combat RPG, but also has a unique method in which combat growth is executed. The Transistor comes equipped with special abilities called “Functions” that perform a variety of offensive moves and defensive actions. At any one time, you may only have four Functions in your combat bar, but you may then chose to augment those Functions with unused Functions, which in turn, give the original Function a completely different attack or action. This makes the combat system a fun experience as you constantly want to try different combinations to see what the end results will be.
Using the Functions has a dual purpose, though. As you use the Functions, you will get to uncover bits of backstory about the people who created each individual Function, thus, furthering the narrative. During combat, you may choose to play the game in complete real-time combat mode using the Transistors thousands of possible Function combinations to destroy your enemies, or you may use a key feature that the game presents called the “planning mode.” Upon Red filling her action bar, she will be allowed to enter the planning mode called “Turn.” Using this mode, you will be able to map out a set of actions and movements to perform (each consuming some of the action bar), and then execute them at super-speed. Of course, after doing this, Red must dodge enemies until her action bar fills up again; this helps balance the use of real-time combat and planning mode.
The Transistor weapon also allows you to implement “Limiters,” which allows you to increase the difficulty of combat in exchange for a boost to your levelling rate. With this in mind, I used the Limiters quite a bit to keep the difficulty adjusted to a level that I found to be a challenge, but not so as to limit my progress through the game itself. This design mechanic works very well and is a homage to Bastion’s “shrine system,” in which you could activate totems to increase the difficulty in exchange for levelling or resource collection boosts. All in all, the combat system is fast paced and anyone should find it simple enough, and an enjoyable experience to work with.
Transistor is very much an action RPG, and you will find that, throughout the game, you will constantly be on your toes during combat; often making use of the planning system to implement your next move. Some people may find the constant action a bit overwhelming, and perhaps feel that it takes away from the story. Personally, however, I thought the developers struck the perfect balance between fast combat and rich narrative that can be experienced in-between combat. The level design is strictly linear, in as much that the whole game feels like one continuous level; with the occasional checkpoint that offers you the chance to unlock hidden goodies and uncover more of the storyline. In my opinion, though, linearity worked, and was the best way to deliver the game.
Overall, Transistor places a lot of emphasis on its combat system, and so it should; it works very well! The system is intricate and offers a surprisingly deep level of strategy or action based combat; depending on which preference you like. Ultimately, it is up to you to choose what Functions and combos you like to use, and for me personally, this was an invaluable freedom of choice that sets the game above other RPGs similar in design.
The artwork in Transistor truly remarkable, and the attention to detail is simply flawless. The entire game world looks as if it should belong in a painting, and it’s clear Supergiant Games worked hard to create something special. Red is well designed, and for a female lead, she always looks very stylish. It’s impressive to see such attention to detail in her design; for example, the way her trench coat flicks around as she moves. On the other end, you also have Red’s partner in crime, the Transistor, for which I can’t resist praising its design. Who else would get away with creating a great-sword, that in my mind, looks like a giant cybernetic USB stick? Even as Red drags the Transistor around, it leaves an elaborate display of red and gold circuitry style afterglow in its wake.
The world design itself is quite remarkable, and I cannot stress this enough; the attention to detail is beyond words. From the intricate artwork that is displayed in different parts of the city, to the sci-fi glow of neon lights and electronic terminals; the entire world has been crafted with a vision to truly captivate you within the world of Transistor. Another presentation aspect that deserves high mention is the music. Transistor features an original soundtrack that dynamically changes as the action and story unfold, and may I say, it is simply beautiful. It is a soundtrack that you can easily listen to over and over, and continue to enjoy long after you complete the game.
Transistor is a narrative gem that will go down in gaming history as being at the forefront for new ideas, and pushing the boundaries for narrative-driven gameplay. It is an intense story-driven experience that will give you everything that you expect from a sci-fi action RPG, and still leave you wanting more once the credits roll. In my opinion, Supergiant Games has done an incredible job in creating a rich, dynamic world that is full of mystery, as well as excellent character and story design. Transistor is a game that deserves to be played over and over again.
Note: This article was based on the PC version of the game, and provided to us by Supergiant Games for review.