We’re not going to get away with this, are we?
With this leading question, Supergiant Games drops us into the city of Cloudbank, a beautiful art deco metropolis with accents of neon cyberpunk. The world of Transistor is organic but also artificial. Heavily networked, every piece of the world and its inhabitants feel like part of some unseen construct or entity. It’s a carefully deliberate design choice that suffuses the whole game.
We find our protagonist, Red, standing above a dead body with a giant talking sword protruding from its chest. This sword, the titular Transistor, will be Red’s guide and companion as she seeks to unravel the events that have transpired and lead her to this point.
Being pursued by a malicious intelligence known as the Process, Red must combat its various robotic constructs as she seeks to discover the reason for her predicament and make her escape.
The details and motivations of the forces at play are initially a complete unknown; even the story of Red herself is kept deliberately abstruse. Transistor is a game that does not hold your hand. It wants you to explore the world and discover its mysteries. It requires experimentation with its core mechanics, and a willingness to move forward without having the big picture coloured in all the way to the edges.
In its last game, Bastion, Supergiant Games delivered a compelling action RPG. Its unique narrative hook positioned it well above its contemporaries. Players hoping for that same attention to detail, voice, and compelling gameplay will not be disappointed with Transistor. But this is a game that operates very differently under the hood.
While technically an Action RPG, Transistor moves well away from the reactive real-time mechanics the genre is known for. While the combat can be resolved in real-time it's not ideal, and not how it was designed to be played.
Using the recharging power of the Transistor, Red can pause the Process to plan her attacks and movements; then unpause to instantaneously execute her attack plan. It’s a unique mechanic that almost works perfectly. Those wanting a hack ‘n slash game will find the mechanic a chore, and those wanting a pure turn-based experience will be frustrated by the need to recharge the action bar while avoiding oncoming assaults before entering the next attack phase.
This design choice will be divisive, but those willing to embrace its sometimes clunky charm will find a deep and rewarding combat system with a multitude of tactical options, and an army of robotic enemies that evolve and change as the game progresses.
An significant part of the tactical variety in Transistor is the unique skill system, which like the central narrative is left to the player to explore and discover. Combat skills in the game are presented as programming commands and can either be equipped as a primary attack, a passive skill, or used as an upgrade to modify or enhance another skill.
Skills themselves are unlocked throughout the game via the Transistor. It will absorb the essence or data of deceased residents and distil them in to an appropriate skill, further building on the circuitry/networked theme of the game.
There are numerous skills to find, and seemingly countless combinations to experiment with, and what starts off as a simple upgrade system becomes a complex and compelling game element in itself, rewarding experimentation and opening up new tactical combat choices as skills are combined in various configurations. The only issue here is that as your skill list increases the UI does become unwieldy.
As important as the combat mechanics are, many fans of Bastion were enraptured with the reactive nature of the omnipresent Narrator. Voiced by Logan Cunningham, he was the game's personality. Happily, Logan has teamed up again with Supergiant to provide the voice of the eponymous Transistor, and it fulfils a similar role in this game. However, unlike the Bastion's Narrator, the Transistor is also character in the world. He interacts with Red and responds to action in the game accordingly. The nature of what he is and who he was is one of the important mysteries to be revealed as the game progresses, and this contribution to the game cannot be understated. Transistor, like Bastion before it, has a personality that gives the game life far beyond the combined minutia that it is built from.
Supergiant Games has demonstrated again how a unified vision of the aesthetic and mechanical components of a game can combine to become something truly special. At around 10 hours, Transistor's journey is a relatively fleeting one, but it's worth every cent of the admission fee.