Three years after Bastion was released, SuperGiant Games launched their next project for modern platforms in the form of Transistor, which took an interesting shift from the studio’s first entry. The fantasy realm in pieces was exchanged for a sci-fi universe in transition, the huge arsenal was removed for a ton of chips to upgrade your character with, the fast-paced combat was turned into a pause-based setup, and even the music went for an industrial sound than a medieval one. With such a departure from their previous title, was this step towards something different worthwhile?
Sightseer in your own town
Red, the game’s protagonist, stands in sorrow over the corpse of a man with a technological sword inside him. As she pulls the weapon out of him, the blade utters “together again, sort of”. Because of how vague this story is kept throughout the adventure and only hints at times on what is going on, I do not dare to spoil anything linked to it. However, I can say that the relationship between the two is wonderful, with the sword commenting on the areas around them while altering between witty and serious tones for the right moments.
This truly made him into a diverse character, and despite that Red never utters a word in the entire playthrough, I love how much personality she gets out through answering comments on message boards, her facial expressions in cutscenes, and the subtle animations, like how she hugs her blade after every battle. Even the concept that she is a singer who has lost her voice is a nice twist on the silent avatar, yet is never a hindrance from making her memorable because of these beautiful details. By having two ways of communicating, one through audio and the other through interactions, it makes it quite heartwarming when this leads to creating believable chemistry between the duo.
Although Transistor is great at making the dire situations sink in, it is never afraid of letting the protagonists enjoy the simpler moments or show cute connections between them, making me care about their safety. A favourite example of mine is how the sword comments on your fighting, and even calls you mean if you overkill on an enemy, which is both humorous and dark. While not as strong, the world-building is also impressive by offering each region its functionalities through clear visual setups, like cafes, stages or harbours to name a few.
Furthermore, there are terminals everywhere that contain a lot of neat insights into this universe, such as how people vote on the weather they wish to have. Unfortunately, not all of the lore is told well. Your sword, the Transistor, can absorb people’s abilities and acquire knowledge of who they were in the form of chips. This might sound fascinating, but this leads to a bunch of flavour text, and despite that these can be interesting NPCs, they do not leave any impact thanks to underwhelming storytelling and the lack of strong relations to the plot.
The lore never drags on or becomes too vague, but it does use this media poorly on the occasion. Luckily, this is never enough to break the immersion and I admire how you see the city transform through the plot you are uncovering. Sadly, even the latter can be hard to grasp. This is the part that has the writing become bizarre instead of intriguingly philosophical or political, and it is especially hurtful when everything said could be summarized in one sentence.
However, the story became more clear as I reached the end and made me captivated by what visions the villains had. It is just a shame that it was not until the last moment that I got invested and remembered what my overarching goal originally was. Even if Transistor stumbles in presenting its lore and a solid mystery, it has charm with endearing characters and a city with tons of sights to behold, making me appreciate the journey overall.
Story Score: 7/10
Despite being a linear RPG, this indie game is magnificent at working thoroughly with its concept and fleshing every piece of it out! While controlling Red in an isometric view, she will always be restricted to a set arena whenever she encounters foes, with no other choice but to fight them. When in such a scenario, you can either battle the opponents in real time or push a button to stop it altogether. Doing the latter is the main mechanic of the combat, as you can plan a string of abilities, with each taking a portion of the upper limitation bar. You can always redo a move and have all the time you need to make your choices, with numbers showcasing how much damage each attack deals.
When you are ready, you can activate your setup and will do all the scheduled actions at a blistering speed. This is a wonderful design that is impressively balanced due to plenty of important key features. A noteworthy one is that whenever you have used the time bar, you have to wait until it is recharged in order to reuse it and you can only walk or dash if you have the latter equipped meanwhile. Though there are plenty of minor details to consider too, like how even if motions cost differently depending on their strengths to make them all useful, you can also utilise the last amount of the bar for any power regardless of how much it originally takes.
Lastly, the enemies are a huge part of why this combat can be incredibly tense. You will come across those who abrupt the time stops with glitches, some that teleport after a hit, others that can shoot lasers, a couple that can provide other foes with shields, and plenty more. These fiends are also a smart mix of aggressive and defensive in their approaches, making it so you will have to deal with varied opponents simultaneously and plan your moves carefully, adding a lovely form of strategy to these fights.
Increasing your level in this title is also unique, as you will be getting different upgrades that you can choose between. The first one is which presented chip to take, which is essentially everything to your character. These fragments can be used as an action, a passive upgrade to one installed power or a passive feature to your avatar overall. For example, let us say you have a normal stab and just gathered a mask chip. You can either use it as an ability to turn invisible with a long recharge, place it under your stab chip to make backstabbing deal more damage or put it on general passive to become unnoticeable after every kill.
This kind of creativity is constant and easy to experiment with for diverse approaches. I myself went from a mighty mercenary to a stealthy summoner, before going over to debuffing fiends with my dashes and quick moves. All takes are valuable and there are plenty of chips to try out for various effects. With four attack slots, four for passive skills, and upwards to two extra for each attack, you can imagine the massive amount of combinations to discover.
As you upgrade your character, you can also select between unlocking more slots for either of the passive setups or acquiring more MEM, which is basically the limitation for equipping chips. Each of these trinkets requires a certain amount to be utilised, making even them severely well balanced to not make you become overpowered. All of these neat details make Transistor contain one of the most ingenious combat systems I have ever encountered, with even the three boss battles being a treat for testing your created playstyle!
Should you feel the need for a stronger challenge, you can activate different limiters that are provided after each level up. These will give you more XP at the cost of making the game harder, such as the enemies’ spawned eggs will have shields or just increase their stats. This is a minor extra, but offers nice ways to raise the difficulty. Losing all of your health will make a random chip useless until you come across a couple of stations for changing your equipment, which is a clever punishment that forces you to rethink your strategies for at least a short while.
Yes, you can only change your setup at certain locations and must be ready for any encounter. You do heal up after every battle, though with no items or stores to rely on, this RPG expects you to be prepared at all times. I could go on with how there are layouts that change the fights with destructible columns to hide behind or specific areas you cannot cross, but this title succeeds because it only focuses on its outstanding combat.
Everything outside of it is barely present. Be it the VDUs or the moments dedicated to telling the story: they do not overstay their welcome and let you continue to play the game. The journey also ends after four comfortable hours, leaving me satisfied with what I experienced, despite making me hungry for a sequel. Although, it is not without a couple of issues. One is that simply the hud for your attacks is too big and with no possibility to control the camera, I always felt a sense of claustrophobia and had to redo moves just because I could not see everything.
Another one that rather confused me, is the lack of puzzles utilising the time mechanic. There is one early on in this adventure where you connect two buttons using it, and that is it. This makes it sad to not see it fleshed out, as there clearly was something more to this idea. However, this does not change what a wonderful adrenaline rush Transistor provides with plenty of tense strategies and an intriguing concept that is imaginative and exhilarating.
Gameplay Score: 9/10
Who says the future looks bleak?
This is a mesmerising project to witness in motion. Every attack is fierce with strong effects, their enhancements have visual differences, and going into time stop makes the outlines come forth in a dark and foreboding manner. The Transistor even leaves electrical sparks while being dragged around by Red and I admire how this weapon is basically a circuit board with an eye. The heroine herself has lovely details to her design as well, such as her yellow dress contrasting beautifully to her red hair, with the jacket on her being a solace reminder of who she lost.
In fact, the protagonists are a neat discrepancy to the robots that despite coming in varied forms, look simple and clean to the point of being uncomfortable. Furthermore, this dim city is full of neon colours with fantastic lighting and plenty of constructions, making it vast and gorgeous. Parks with plants and fountains, tall apartment complexes with decorative floors, and explicit uses of diverse cultural styles meshed into one city with fitting establishments, like shopping districts. This really feels like a futuristic universe where everything has been upgraded into something new, yet familiar.
Lastly, the paintings are stunning with captivating colours, impressive attention to shading, and are iconic like movie posters. These are truly pieces of art, with Red being incredibly expressive by showcasing clear emotions. Unsurprisingly, the audio is no slacker either, making every move impactful whether it be the harsh hits from your blade, hypnotic sounds of your dodges or satisfying explosions. The voice actor for the sword is also praiseworthy, giving his character a distinct personality, with excellent directions to indicate whenever he is worried or just wants to lighten the mood. The other cast members, while not as present, do have powerful deliveries to become memorable too.
As a smart change from Bastion, Darren Korb returns to provide sublime compositions that focus on industrial and electrical tunes, making them match the visuals perfectly. Every track contains strong variety, amazing build-ups, and remarkable highlights, be they distressful through echos, uplifting with a more relaxed pace or tense with harsh beats. There are even some melodies accompanied by the singer, Ashley Lynn Barrett, offering her delightful voice to the songs that directly reflects the protagonists. How all of these details in the presentation come together to provide such a spectacular atmosphere, is nothing short of marvellous.
Presentation Score: 10/10
The mentioned limiters are a nice way to take make the journey more difficult, but not an essential part of the replay value. What will be, is recursion, which is basically a new game plus! Here, you bring with you all of your upgrades from the last playthrough and battle against harder foes, having both your abilities and sets of opponents expanded from the start. I love this, as you become a vicious beast that will be challenged, with even unlockable duplicates of already owned chips being presented for creating interesting combinations!
Outside of this, you also got four different kinds of arenas to try out, each revolving around battling robots. The performance will let you mix a given handful of chips, the planning provides you with defined moves to use within a specified number of turns, and the speed test lets you use your equipment for dealing with fiends before the clock runs out. All of their goals are to kill everyone on the screen, with the stability having you survive until a timer ends. Every mission is a tense and exciting task to attempt at, with successful runs rewarding you with music tracks! How can you say no to this?
Extra Score: 9/10
This is simply a bloody cool game that I wish got a direct sequel. With a fantastic combat system that begs for experimentation, clever enemy designs, great reasons to revisit it, an outstanding presentation that makes me lost for words, and characters that I adore in a fascinating world, Transistor truly is one of the most unique RPGs I have ever played. It is certainly one of my favourite cyberpunk titles ever.