Most video games feel derivative, as if they're made of snippets of games that have come before, shuffled around and reordered in the hopes that no one will notice that nothing here is actually new or original. Supergiant's Transistor does, too. Yet it manages the rare feat of feeling derivative and yet wholly unlike anything you've ever played before.
At its basic level, Transistor does hearken back to Supergiant's own Bastion, as you control a lone character fighting through a light, linear RPG as a constant voice narrates your progress through a world devastated by mysterious powers. This time, though, the narrator isn't speaking to you the player but rather to you the character; it's a soul inside the eponymous sword-like device that protagonist Red carries with her as her sole weapon. Red, a famous chanteuse in the futuristic city of Cloudbank, has lost her voice, so the Transistor's one-sided conversation with its wielder serves both to deliver essential plot-building exposition and the game's emotional fulcrum.
The connection between Red and the Transistor also serves as the means by which Supergiant subverts many of the clichés they've borrowed for this brief but intriguing adventure. How many games feature a silent hero driven to save the world from an unknowable evil as a voice jabbers endlessly to explain the plot and mechanics via radio? But Transistor flips the standard Master Chief/Cortana dynamic into reverse, making the unassuming woman the protagonist while the powerful character - in this case, the Transistor, which absorbs the souls of the dead and converts the deceased's personality into powers that echo that person's nature in life - becomes nothing more than a tool, the means to the end for both the heroine (who uses the Transistor to save Cloudbank) and the developers (who use it to drive the story). Meanwhile, Red herself doesn't tote her enormous weapon with the brawny self-assurance of a Cloud Strife but rather drags the thing behind her, sparks trailing, as she struggles to put right the mechanical apocalypse that has subsumed her home.
Transistor's plot dabbles in the usual shadowy conspiracies and well-meaning master plans gone horribly wrong, but it does so quietly. The nameless soul within the weapon speaks to Red intimately, and without the omniscience of a typical narrator. When it talks, the monologue is more conversation than exposition. Though the control scheme dedicates a button to Red's ability to hum - at any time outside combat, she can sing a wordless countermelody to the current background tune - she can only communicate by typing terse messages to her inhuman companion at computer terminals scattered throughout the city.
Likewise, Transistor relays the bulk of its story through data files and text dumps, as so many games do. While these are written from an omniscient perspective, they're neatly integrated into the game mechanics; in essence, they're the Transistor's own notes on the souls contained within it. Collectively, the notes paint a clear picture of the overall story, and the means by which you unlock this information is within your own hands from the beginning. Each character note relates to the power the Transistor derives from their essence, and you learn more about that character by using their corresponding ability in different ways.
Red can wield the skills available to her in different ways: As a basic ability, as an enhancement to a different ability, or as a permanent passive buff on herself. You can redefine the role and function of these skills at any of the "access points" that appear along the route to the end, arranging and rearranging them at your leisure. While it's tempting to simply rely on a favorite setup once you discover it, Transistor actively encourages you to experiment with your capabilities; and given that you can ultimately mix-and-match a dozen different skills through countless thousands of permutations, Transistor opens itself to some impressive customization options.
And there, too, the game manages to rise above its seeming limitations. Despite the utter linearity of the quest - even the interactive story points that other RPGs would turn into character-driven choices give you a single mandatory option here - Transistor presents its freedom, its role-playing, through the combat system. The skills transferred upon Red by the Transistor range from pure attacks to debuffs to enemy manipulation, with additional effects resulting from the modifiers you apply to those skills. Sure, the rising sword strike skill Cull is powerful, but it becomes even more devastating if you apply the stealth skill Mask to it to grant bonuses for attacking a foe from behind. And if you precede your attack by stacking a few Void debuffs augmented with the disruptive Crash attribute, a strong basic attack can become a devastating strike capable of destroying literally any foe in the game in a single hit.
But maybe you prefer a more subtle approach. Maybe you'd rather force enemies to change allegiance by hitting them with the charm ability, turning them against their own allies. Or perhaps you'd rather summon a companion character to control separately from Red, doubling your attack options - unless you give the companion summon the modifier that causes it to split into two creatures at once, which effectively triples your attack options. And if you apply the charm skill to the summon's second modifier slot so that every time your twin attack dogs attack they turn their target to your side, even better.
These actions (and any others you choose to create) play out through an interesting hybrid combat system that appears to work like an action RPG on its surface but ultimately proves to be a turn-based affair. Red can pause time and queue up multiple commands to execute instantly, meaning you need only move in real time and dodge enemy skills while waiting for the Turn meter to recharge and allow you to freeze the action again. Each skill you equip has a different Turn cost, though naturally you can apply passive modifiers to increase your available Turn points or reduce the cost of a favorite ability. Moving about the battlefield counts against your Turn points as well, allowing you to maneuver behind a foe in order to take advantage of that backstabbing bonus modifier. You can even empower yourself to use a skill while waiting for the Turn meter to recharge.
And every time you experiment with a new configuration, you unlock more information about the plot. While Transistor's story plays out exactly the same for everyone, the means by which you reach its end varies dramatically from player to player; Transistor even collates data from other players to indicate which skill applications are most and least popular around the world. The more experimental your approach to combat, the more you learn about the narrative.
Transistor is the story of a girl and her sword and their quest to save their home from an unknowable destructive force. The freedom you're given to complete that goal through battle makes an interesting contrast to the unrelentingly linear road that takes you there; and the Transistor's running dialogue - alternately defiant, lost, confused, affectionate, and mournful -pulls you into the adventure while neither spelling things out too obviously or being too needlessly obfuscatory. Over the course of the journey, the bond between Red and her sword deepens. Until the end, where a single word contains more emotion than the entirety of most games.
The first time I played Transistor, I expected it would be a game built upon the gameplay foundation Supergiant Games established with its first title. I thought I was in for another great action RPG. Instead, Supergiant's second title builds upon the storytelling and artistic direction found in Bastion, leaving behind the Kid and crafting a brand-new scifi tale.
Transistor looks simply amazing. It's presented in isometric viewpoint, but switches out the organic feel of Bastion's world for a city of straight edges and geometric shapes. Bastion played out in a ruined and decaying world that crafted itself under you, while the city of Cloudbank in Transistor radiates outward as if drawn by a machine. You'll find terminals that show human life still exists around you, but your quest is a lonely one, with only the eponymous Transistor as your partner and guide. It's better that way.
Supergiant artist Jen Zee had a cartoony styling in her work before, but the setting in Transistor allows her to stretch her muscles; Red and the other Traces she meets in her journey can be described as hauntingly beautiful. Which makes sense, seeing as they're just echoes of the dead. The magnificent artistic direction is backed up by a great soundtrack featuring the vocals of Ashley Barrett as the lost voice of Red.
Explaining Transistor's combat is difficult. It plays out naturally in real-time, but activating your Turn() ability - similar to the Pause mode found in other RPGs - allows you to queue up maneuvers to play out in high-speed. Combined with an ability system that lets you mix-and-match Trace functions at any available Access Point, you have a game that is surprisingly like a single-character Tactics game. The entire ability mechanic allows for a great deal of player choice without resorting to the old "put points into these trees" system found in a number of other action RPGs.
It's this system that had me enjoying Transistor primarily for the combat, even though the story is told with grace and subtlety. There's so much room to experiment and play around with different playstyles and combinations. I think Supergiant realized that the Trace abilities were a bit of a playground, because the game doesn't punish you too bad for having your lifebar hit zero. Instead, Transistor overloads one of your ability slots temporarily; they repair after you use a certain number of Access Points. This ups the stakes and tension of the game without being too punitive. It inclines you to keep your options open.
And as Jeremy points out, playing the field when it comes to Trace abilities actually gives you more information on each donor. It ties the act of using the abilities to the game's world-building, which is pretty keen. It's the kind of thing you can do when you have confidence in your abilities, and it's clear Supergiant has the expertise to back up that confidence. Bastion was just the warm-up, folks, Transistor is the real exercise.
- Graphics: Transistor plays out in a beautiful futuristic art deco city that subtly changes as the world decay - so subtly, in fact, that you may not even notice the evolution until you go back to the beginning of the game.
- Audio: Great music, great voice acting, great sound effects. The fact that you can make the heroine hum along with the soundtrack is just gravy.
- Interface: Transistor allows you to mix-and-match a dozen skills in thousands of permutations, but it never feels overwhelming or confusing. The only improvement I could suggest would be a more convenient list of a skill's modifiers.
- Lasting Appeal: While brief and linear, Transistor incorporates a new game+ mode that's worth experiencing not only for the heightened challenge but for the richer understanding of the story that comes from having followed Red's journey to its conclusion.
Great combat mechanics and excellent writing help Transistor transcend the familiarity of its individual components. A gorgeous, intriguing, and ultimately moving tale, Supergiant's sophomore effort builds on the strengths that made Bastion so memorable without feeling like a mere retread.