From the moment Transistor began with a gorgeous hand-painted image of Red, the lead heroine, grieving near a shadowy figure with a sword in his chest, I knew this wouldn’t be an ordinary game. When I pressed the “X” button to advance and heard the sword-like weapon the game is named after say, “Hey, Red, we’re not gonna get away with this, are we?” in a cold, yet sorrowful voice, my suspicions were confirmed. Transistor for the PlayStation 4 excels in its visual and audio presentations, from the neo-noir art direction by Jen Zee to the “old-world electronic post-rock” soundtrack by composer Darren Korb.
Transistor succeeding in art and sound are also what made Supergiant Games’ first release, Bastion, stand out among the indie game crowd. But Bastion wasn’t just a critical success for its good looks and alluring sound; it was the entertaining strategy-based gameplay mixed in with the aforementioned and more that made the it worthy to own. It’s not hard to see a bit of the predecessor in the successor, as both games share the same isometric perspective, strategy elements, and captivating narration from their respected secondary characters. However, Transistor is not Supergiant Games’ way of capitalizing on its prior success with something painfully similar, but rather, a further exploration in what made Bastion a success in the first place. In general, Transistor hits all the right notes, but gameplay is where it shows weakness.
Let’s start with the story: Transistor takes place in a futuristic city of Cloudbank as it being attacked by a robotic force known as the Process. Controlling the Process is a sinister group named the Camerata and they order their new minions to kill a famous singer that goes by the name Red. The assassination on Red’s life fails, as a mysterious man takes the death stab meant for her and has his subconscious sealed inside a sword. After removing the Transistor from the dead man’s chest, Red sets off to defeat the Camerata and restore peace in Cloudbank.
While the summary sound straightforward, Transistor is anything but. The game doesn’t spoon-feed you everything you need to know about its non-linear story, but instead asks you to hang on until the end to fully understand what exactly happened on Red’s journey. Even when it ends, Transistor asks you to take another look through its new game plus mode, as it makes a few significant changes that will have you questioning the true take of its narrative. Refusing to take the straight road isn’t the only subversive thing about Transistor‘s storyline. Underneath its intimidating narrative, Transistor is a love story understandable to all and really hits you in the gut when the credits begin to roll.
As previously stated, the game is viewable from an isometric perspective. The top-down look not only lets you admire the vibrant surroundings of Cloudbank, but provides the necessary view to defeat the Process and advance to the next section of the city. Red has four attack slots that can be assigned to the Dualshock 4’s face buttons and can execute them in real-time combat. However, Red can also freeze time by pressing the Turn() button (R2 trigger) and assign her attacks without interruption, as long as her action bar isn’t completely drained. If Red suffers too much assault by her mechanical foes, one of her “functions” will break and will continue to do so until she is all out of moves and earns a game over.
With the Turn() ability, Transistor could have been a walk in the park in terms of combat. It’s not so, as your battle with the Process will often change from the standard to something more challenging. You view will sometimes be clouded or certain enemies will need to be defeated first before you can take out the rest. Later on, enemies stronger than the ones fought before will perform one-hit function kills, making it harder to use Turn() without a strategy beforehand. Those fearing combat in Transistor would grow tiresome have nothing to worry, as the game knows exactly when to spice things up.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments of repetitiveness in Transistor, evident in the later parts of the game when a once-fresh opponent is overused as the only obstacle standing in your way. More so, Transistor doesn’t fully scratch the surface with its gameplay as it does with its presentation. One shocking moment within the story reveals the game to be much shorter than it appeared and concepts, such as leaping from building to building or walking upside down, are quickly forgotten. While not frequent, the isometric view can make it hard to see the pathway you need to take or the objects you can interact with. Boss battles are rarely special when compared to normal combat, but the final one stands out for taking everything the game has taught you and turning it against you.
Outside of overanalyzing its story, there aren’t many reasons to revisit Transistor. There are side missions available in the game that test your strategic skills, but that’s about it. Retailing at $19.99, Transistor may seem like a steep price for a short-lived experience. Nonetheless, Transistor offers an experience worth indulging in, if only to hear the game’s signature song “We All Become” by vocalist Ashley Barrett, played out through its mesmerizing cutscene.