Bastion was one of my favourite games from its generation. Supergiant’s gorgeous, stunningly scored isometric action-RPG absolutely captured my heart when I played it, and of course Logan Cunningham’s rich narration helped seal the deal. And yet, Transistor has remained unplayed on my PS4 for years. I couldn’t tell you why at all. It’s time I remedied that.
Transistor (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Switch)
Released May 2014 | Developed / Published: Supergiant Games
Genre: Action-RPG, Turn-Based Strategy
As Bastion begins we come to in a strange city; a narrator gives us some oblique story hints, and as we stare wide-eyed around us we realise something is very, very wrong. Oh hang on, I’m meant to be talking about Transistor. Sorry, I’ll start again.
As Transistor begins we come to in a strange city; a narrator gives us some oblique story hints, and as we stare wide-eyed around us we realise something is very, very wrong. Look, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this, I’m just suggesting maybe Supergiant has a type. Transistor however is a lot more sci-fi than Bastion, and in some respects I suspect Supergiant may have deliberately stuck with a similar groundwork for their stories so as to allow themselves to pour more effort into crafting Transistor’s new world and explore what different avenues this narrative might go down with a shift in setting. Transistor, then, is set in a sci-fi world, in the city of Cloudbank. Cloudbank is governed by creativity, literally; artists of all stripes seem to have guided it and terminals dotted about the city constantly poll the populace and change Cloudbank according to the whims of the majority. To do this the city employs a vast artificial intelligence called the Process, and you might be able to hazard a guess as to where this story is going.
To its credit, Transistor harbours a great deal more mystery than my opening spiel implies. At the outset of Transistor what we mostly get is questions. We’re greeted with a mysterious scene; our protagonist, a red-haired woman, stands over the corpse of a man from which protrudes the titular Transistor, a wide sword which glows blue and resembles a circuit board. As we pull it from the unfortunate sod, the sword begins to speak – and it knows us. We’re given a name – Red, natch – and we quickly learn she is a famous singer in Cloudbank, but has somehow lost her voice. Walking through the streets we quickly come across the Process’ robots, who are immediately hostile, and we see the depths of the calamity which has struck the city. Wherever the Process has been, they leave an area that has been, well, processed, and great blank white slabs loom where the buildings of Cloudbank once stood.
The game does a marvelous job of preserving its mystery and unfurling it as you pace through the story. For the vast majority of the game the only voice we hear is the Transistor’s; once again Logan Cunningham lends his prodigious talent to a Supergiant game though here he never plays the omniscient storyteller-cum-narrator that he is in Bastion. Instead the Transistor reacts morosely to the city as Red follows her quest, commenting on anything the pair come by, from the profligacy of the Process and the damage it has left behind, to remarking wistfully at the remains of the once-beautiful city. It is from the Transistor where we learn of the Camerata, a shadowy organization which controls the Process, and with it Red’s goal of defeating them and saving Cloudbank. Like Bastion, the monologue is adaptive and you might hear different dialogue on subsequent playthroughs as you take the opportunity to explore more thoroughly to see how the Transistor reacts.
The presentation might make you think this is going to be similar to Bastion or indeed other isometric action-RPGs but you’d be wrong. In fact Transistor is a fusion of action-RPG and tactical strategy, with a heavy amount of customization built in and encouraged and filtered through a programming theme. The titular Transistor has 4 slots for functions to be equipped to and pressing the corresponding button performs that attack; however, where things come alive is in the Turn() ability. Red has an action bar stretching across the top of the screen during combat and by pressing the button to activate Turn() time stops for everyone but her, and every action and movement you take drains your turn bar. What this allows you to do is plan out and cue up your actions and attacks against the Process, letting you string together a combo of attacks which, once you press the Turn() button again, are performed as a single action which your foes cannot retaliate to. This has a small downside though in that you then have to wait for the bar to recharge and while it’s doing so you cannot use any of your attacks, leaving you vulnerable to counter-attacks. Combat becomes a brilliant balance of cueing up your turns for maximum damage and then frantically trying to evade attacks until you can unleash another turn.
Running out of health doesn’t mean an instant game over; instead once you lose your HP you recover it all and carry on but lose the use of one of your 4 functions. Losing all 4 in a single fight is game over, and this system is a double-edged sword; it seems generous at first but if you’re not careful you can end up losing your most useful functions quite quickly which then necessitates you changing your combos and playstyle on the fly and repeated deaths can make for very hectic ends to fights. At save points you’re encouraged to fiddle with your loadouts as much as possible. Any function you get can be equipped to the Transistor in one of the active slots, letting you use them in combat, but you can also equip them as a passive upgrade to an already equipped function, giving that function bonus attributes and often modifying how the attack works entirely. In an engaging tweak to this, mastering functions unlocks snippets of backstory and embellishment, so you’re encouraged to be constantly mixing and tweaking your loadout to get the most from the narrative. This is extremely clever design and I love how well it’s implemented in Transistor.
Another feature to combat is one adapted from Bastion. In that game you could use marks associated with the gods of the world to impose challenges and restrictions upon yourself in return for a greater return on experience points. Transistor does the same thing though couched in the same programming theme as the rest of the game in the form of Limiters. As in Bastion manipulating these is the key to really getting the most challenge out of the combat and will no doubt be a reason to keep replaying the game for hardcore enthusiasts.
Of course, you might want to keep replaying Transistor purely to carry on staring, starry-eyed, at the truly mind-blowing visuals. Cloudbank is a gorgeous combination of cyberpunk neon and lavish art deco architecture, and every screen offers something new to gawp at. It’s no exaggeration to say this is one of the most beautiful games I’ve played; as always, games with stylised visuals age well and Transistor is an exceptional piece of proof to that, but it’s more than it just looks good. Transistor has such a clear and well-realised vision that it elevates it above even the exquisite-looking Bastion; every street and detail drips with character and in that Cloudbank begins to become an entity in its own right. In contrast, the Process is marked by pure white, with harsh red lights and angular, geometric shapes. When first encountered it’s a curiosity, but the further into the game you get, the more heart-wrenching it becomes to see swathes of the city become subsumed by the artless literal white-washing effect of the Process. The clean and lifeless cuboids overrun the city, killing the heart and soul of Cloudbank, leaving stark blank slates which cover up any evidence of anything else ever existing. It’s that brand of environmental storytelling which I really latch onto and it struck an intense chord as I played.
Forgive me another comparison to Bastion. Perhaps the single best thing from that game, if I could only pick one, was the utterly mesmerising soundtrack. Darren Korb’s work was remarkable, transcending genres and melding them together into a marvelous Southern acoustic-trip-hop fusion which stands not just the test of time within the game but also functions fantastically as just an album of excellent music in its own right. Knowing that Korb composed Transistor as well stirred all kinds of excitement; if Bastion was that good, what could he do with Transistor’s cyberpunk setting?
The answer shouldn’t surprise anyone. Transistor’s music is bloody amazing. The opening guitar twangs of Old Friends submerge us immediately into the reverb-soaked world of post-rock. Their echoing melancholic solitude is quickly broken by the dirtiest snare in existence; it’s quickly followed by the thump of the kick drum, but what catches the ear immediately is the unsettling syncopation as if two opposing forces are clashing. In that, it fits the game perfectly; even more so when the powerful synth bass kicks in and synergises with the beat, like the Process overrunning Cloudbank.
The over-processed (ha!) electronica elements give the tracks a tangible sense of presence and they evoke a profound sense of unease in me given how clearly they cut through the wavy guitar melodies. Stained Glass is a great example of it; the beat features elements which are audibly bristling due to the heavy compression. Forecast is one of the tracks which feel most reminiscent of Korb’s previous work, primarily I think down to the manic drums, but the new ways in which they are applied and mesh with the melodies give a sparkling new life to his music. The syncopation remains a powerful tool in Korb’s repertoire; Traces is one of those tracks that just makes me screw my face up and sink into properly ugly jamming out to it as the jazzy piano chords try and give some shape to the rhythm before giving up and throwing themselves into the chaos. Really, everything about the soundtrack, from the distorted swells and staccato accordions in Water Wall, to the threatening ambience of Dormant, and to the dirty Nine Inch Nails screeches of Apex Beat, is excellent. I’d highly recommend giving the entire thing a whirl.
I feel like it wouldn’t be a Korb soundtrack without the returning vocals of Ashley Lynn Barett, whose soaring voice really sells the post-rock vibe of Transistor’s soundtrack. The Spine in particular captures that sound as Barrett’s singing slides up and down around the melody, pulling it in wonderful directions. As good as The Spine is, We All Become might be my favourite vocal track with its bouncy keys juxtaposed against the heady and oppressive guitar and aggressive beat that force their way into the song.
I admit I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed Transistor, though I don’t know why, given how much I loved its predecessor. Besides the obvious draw of the graphics and Darren Korb’s soundtrack, I found myself utterly absorbed by the combat in a way I hadn’t been expecting and it’s the first game I’ve played in a while where I actually wanted to spin the story a second time to replay it and discover new combinations of functions and attacks. While I suspect the oblique story might put some off I found it engrossing, plus the reasonably short runtime for my first run through the game appealed to me; it’s pleasing to have a brief, concisely-told narrative which you can jaunt through in an afternoon. The bottom line for me was Transistor was easily as good a time as Bastion and I can’t wait to play it again sometime.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.