Two nights ago I finished playing Transistor. It was the usual thing — late at night, pushing to get through, just one final encounter, drawn on by the promise of finding out… well, everything. And did I? Yes. And no. In the end, the Transistor narrative is, more than anything else, about what you believe it to be. Tantalizing, elusive, mysterious, the realization of the plot seems always just within reach, but is never handed over. This is not a bad thing. Some people will like it, some will not. While the unfolding tale never quite comes within easy reach, it is not beyond a leap of imagination. What kind of story do you want? A mystery, a romance, a cyber noir thriller? Believe it, and it will be. Make it so, and you’ll have it.
Creating an experience this malleable is no mean feat and the developers at Supergiant Games delivered it admirably. A light touch was needed and the narrative here is painted with feathery strokes on a canvas made of shifting geometry and glowing light. Visually, the game is jaw droppingly gorgeous. Your travels take you through an ever changing cityscape, and it is like a journey into a mysterious painting rendered with light and fog and dazzling color. Despite the fact that most of the world is comprised of relatively simple geometry, there’s nothing sharp or jarring. The presentation is always artful and evokes perfectly the ephemeral nature of the world that our heroes inhabit.
And then there’s the music by Darren Korb, with vocals by Ashley Barrett. What to say? It’s beautiful – soulful as a moonlight dance, playful as a kitten, sensual as warm silken skin, sunny and light, driving and tense, it’s what it needs to be when it needs to be it. The melodies and moods will echo around in your head the next day while you’re commuting to work and doing the grocery shopping. And you’ll be glad they are there. Transistor is all about atmosphere, and if the visuals are its looks, the music is it’s soul. It’s good. Really good.
“Did you say heroes?” Yes, two of them actually. Red, a noted female vocal artist whose voice has gone missing, serves as our avatar in the world. Beautiful, demur, emotional and capable of fearlessly kicking serious technological tush, she is a refreshingly different protagonist. Her constant companion is a technological artifact with a personality of its own — the Transistor, a device that looks something like a giant sword crossed with a printed circuit board. With Red bereft of speech, the Transistor serves as the voice of the game – part narrator, part main character. The combination works surprisingly well. Body and no voice, voice and no body. What is the relationship between them? It unfolds slowly over the course of the game. Like the rest of the narrative, it doesn’t hit you over the head with an obvious meme. Subtle interactions leave you plenty of room to form your own interpretation. Logan Cunningham, as the voice of the Transistor, delivers a performance that feels just right for the game’s cyber noir atmosphere.
So, where is the game in this game? There is a bit of exploration, but most of the actual gaming is in the combat. Throughout the game you will find yourself battling “The Process”. These are cybernetic automata with a wide variety of abilities. I have to say that I really appreciate the element of virtuality in Transistor’s combat. It is a very pleasant departure from the “bloody carnage” style of combat that so many games seem to embrace. The feeling here is that you are battling with a set of particularly pernicious software bugs. As a developer myself I find this especially satisfying. 8^)
The combat mechanics are covered in detail in many other reviews and videos. I’ll pass over them lightly here. Combat is a combination of turn-based and real time tactics that allows you to mix and match the two approaches to your preference. This could result in a system that delivers the worst of both worlds, but in this case it doesn’t. Play it as turn-based and the combat has a puzzle-like flavor. Play it real time and it’s more twitchy and frantic. If you do elect turn-based you will still be faced with some of the fast-paced nature of real time play, as there is a cool down period between turns during which you must act and react “on the clock”. I used the turn-based mode primarily and I liked it a lot. It allowed time for my aged, er… mature, brain to devise an effective combination of skills to deal with the situation at hand. The real-time period between turns prevented the action from devolving completely into an intellectual exercise and kept the excitement levels high. Having done a brief perusal of the Transistor forums on this topic (via Steam) it seems that the choice of turn-based vs. real-time varies greatly depending on the player. There are people that swear by either end of the spectrum and others that fall in the middle. Which method you prefer will affect the skills you choose and vice-versa.
Skills? Yep, the skills you gain as you progress through Transistor are the heart of the game’s “role playing” experience. Like many digital games that bill themselves as an RPG these days it’s not my idea of role play, but as a skill system it is very cool. With each new character level you gain a new set of skills. In game terms, each skill is a piece of software that can be loaded into the Transistor device. Needless to say, the Transistor has a limited amount of memory (though this can be increased as you progress). The memory limit means you will have to pick and choose amongst the available skills to achieve an effective combat play style that suits you. This system is tremendously enriched by the fact that each skill can be used in one of three ways: Active, Upgrade or Passive. You have four Active skill slots. The four Active skills you choose determine the major interactions you will have in combat – damage dealing, control, damage mitigation, healing, etc. Each Active skill can have a maximum of two Upgrades. Applying a skill as an Upgrade causes the effect of the upgraded Active skill to be enhanced in a unique fashion that is a riff on both the Active and Upgrade skill. Every skill may also be placed in a Passive slot. In this role, the skill will have a global effect. It may enhance all your other skills or provide some useful ability that does not require explicit activation.
This system requires a moderate amount of decision making and experimentation, but the payoff is the ability to construct your own unique set of skills that complement the way you like to play. The experience provided is like deck building, ala Magic the Gathering or Hearthstone, though necessarily more focused and tight than either. There’s a great deal of synergy to be discovered amongst the provided skills and that in itself provides a kind of mini-game of exploration. Trying out new combinations of skills is encouraged in the game world by revealing new bits of background lore the first time a skill is assigned to each of the three possible slots.
The skill system is elegant and deep. Though I have finished my first play through the game, I feel as though I only scratched the surface of what’s possible and I look forward to future play sessions to continue the search for those awesome skill combos. It seems the developers have made this imminently possible by including a “Recursion” mode, in which you can play through the game’s content repeatedly while maintaining your level and acquired skills. I haven’t tried this yet, but it sounds promising.
Is there anything not to like about this game? Yes and maybe. The “yes” is an interface usability issue. The UI for the skill system is clunky and difficult to figure out when you first begin the game. It requires a lot of jumping back and forth through the various panels to assign the skills the way you want them. Once you figure it out it’s not too bad, but it is a bit of friction that contrasts with the smoothness of the rest of the game. In the grand scheme, it’s a minor issue.
The “maybe” is more interesting. I alluded to it in the opening of the review. It is this — some people may not like the story in Transistor because it leaves so much to the interpretation of the player. If you prefer a clear narrative, with obvious plot points and unmistakable moral assertions, you may be frustrated by the absence of those elements here. The touch here is light. The world of Transistor is elusive and shrouded in mystery. A corner of the shroud is lifted as we experience the game, but there’s a great deal that remains unknown, falling outside the small circle of light that is cast by our journey. Whether that unknown seems to be an empty meaningless void, or an intriguing tapestry just out of sight, could very well depend on the player. It worked well for me as the latter. Your mileage may vary.
Whatever else one may say about Transistor there’s no doubt that it’s a novel experience. The setting is unique, with an atmosphere that is part pulp noir detective fiction and part cyberpunk thriller, though less gritty and violent than both, and more soulful than either. The artwork is gorgeous, the characters intriguing, the music entrancing. The story is light, but tantalizing, encouraging you to engage your imagination. Overall, Transistor provided me with the most unique and captivating gameplay experience I’ve had in a long time.
Do you like a game with varied and interesting tactical combat with a deep and elegant skill system? Recommended.
Do you like a game that tickles your imagination and makes you wonder “What just happened?” and “Wait, what does that mean?” Highly recommended.
Do you like a game with both of the above and has playful, sensual, soulful music? Go. Go on. Go play it now!