As far as first impressions go it’s hard to top Transistor, it’s a bit of a looker. The game was clearly laboured over long and hard by Supergiant Games and the results are beautiful.
Cloudbank, the game’s setting is cohesive in its style, but as you progress through the city’s districts, riffs on its sci-fi aesthetic are present. Some of the later levels are more abstract, evoking the style of ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’, whereas much of the earlier levels show a more noir cum Art Noveau look. The sound is also notably sharp and well produced, with an amazing Jazz/Electronic soundtrack and some brilliant directed voice acting. The sound of a motorbike section specifically left me drooling and left me in no doubt that Transistor would benefit greatly from an amazing sound setup.
While the visuals are predominantly about the backdrop, the character animation has a wonderful wispy quality. This is most certainly a cut above most 2D games in regards to animation; it almost looks 3D in certain actions, especially the player character’s ‘flourish’.
Red the game’s protagonist, is as you’d expect of her name, very vividly coloured but surprisingly indistinct set against the beautiful backgrounds. She is a singer whom amidst a mysterious catastrophe in Cloudbank, finds her voice stolen and discovers an anthropomorphised sword, which has some intrinsic relation to the evil forces that you face. If that sounded vaguely overwhelming, then you should know that all occurs in the first minute, and the game expects you to take on board a consistently dense stream of cryptic backstory, throughout your progression. Things come further into focus towards the end, and if you like the ambiguous and occasionally abstract nature of a ‘Bioshock: Infinite’ story, then it may suit you – thought to draw such a comparison is undue flattery. If however you’d like to ignore the story, then the talking sword does the best job it can of trying to force feed you the nebulous story behind the game. I did find the games interactive narrative interludes dually frustrating, as they slow your progress to the next encounter and introduce more opacity to the narrative, rather than any useful exposition.
Mechanically the game’s moment-to-moment experience can be really fun, it has real-time combat, but also a strategic stopped-time and action-meter system, to execute the real-time abilities in quick succession without the pressure of considering opponents moves. Many of the abilities are very satisfying, especially when executing a strategy based on the stopped-time. While this sounds like you may choose one over the other, the game does a good job of incentivising the use of both with the differing types of enemies.
Transistor is relatively easy, depending on some self-imposed variables I’ll go into a bit further down, but the penalty for failure is extremely frustrating. Upon depletion of your health bar, you lose one of the four abilities mapped to the face buttons. The battle continues, but you suffer from a diminished palette of abilities. You will not regain these abilities until you’ve passed a number of checkpoints which feels both frustrating and counter-intuitive.
Understanding how many of the game’s systems work is as difficult as interpreting the story – as it once again offers very little help with this. Some of the text is prohibitively small as is much of the iconography, failing to give you an idea of what each option means. Once you have managed to comprehend it, the ‘function’ system as it is called, is quite satisfying and clever.
As you level or progress through the story, you unlock functions which act as skills/effects. You can map four of these to the face buttons, but you eventually have the opportunity to use the remainder to act as modifiers or additives for the ones you have already mapped. If you manage to understand that before the end of your first play through then you may also look at the ‘Limiters,’ which are essentially trade-offs that make your game harder in exchange for faster levelling. It’s an interesting concept for players that want to be challenged, but personally I’d only want to use it in a new game.
Transistor is truly at its best when you’re in combat with your fully upgraded arsenal, but even when you get the stage where that’s viable the game’s penalty for failure is all too quick to strip you of it. While the game’s world is beautiful and enigmatic, traversing it is a relatively thankless experience and gets less exciting as it goes on. The story seems arbitrary, or in the very least poorly executed. But despite all of that, there are moments in Transistor that will scratch the itch of any RPG fan and satisfy those wanting a very cool and stylish audio-visual experience.
Words by Kyle Barrett.
(Version Tested: PS4)
+ Visually stunning
+ Amazing soundtrack
+ Satisfying strategic combat
- Gets less exciting as adventure progresses
- Poorly executed story
- Confusing UI and systems