Even if it shares notable similarities to Bastion, Transistor is clearly not simply resting on past laurels; it is, quite stylishly, repackaging a gameplay and narrative format that achieved huge success while adding a few clever flourishes of its own
At times, a good dose of more of the same is not that bad of a deal, especially when the source of inspiration is itself a rather original product. From a certain perspective, Transistor is one of the examples that validates such affirmation. The second work by Supergiant Games, a studio that burst into the independent scene in 2011 with the fantastic Bastion, the game takes advantage of the inherent uniqueness of its older sibling in order to achieve success by not straying too far away from a road that had proven to be a fruitful path.
Much like that beloved debut, Transistor takes the shape of an action role-playing game of absurd simplicity, where all possible frills are taken away and gamers are left to contemplate the basic elements that constitute the genre; that is, combats and storyline. It is a bold approach, one that leaves the effort’s fate hanging on the shoulders of a couple of isolated elements; yet, with all confidence of a company that has done it before and is fully aware that they can pull it off once more, Supergiant Games assembles a quest that although not equivalent to the one that preceded it, is notable nonetheless.
Despite the parallels that can easily be drawn between Bastion and Transistor when it comes to structure, progression, and narrative, it is hard to find two games that are so similar yet so different. Linked by a highly artistic spirit that permeates visuals, music, writing, and all fields of the presentation department, it is clear those behind the pair of adventures wanted to make sure they stood out from one another.
As such, where Bastion was colorful like a cartoon and held obvious inspirations in traditional fantasy; Transistor constructs an Art Nouveau city and embeds it with the usual apocalyptic and oppressive tones of the cyberpunk style. Consequently, even if eternally joined at the hip thanks to context and gameplay, one cannot argue the latter is a lazy repetition of the former when a considerable amount of creative and art-related efforts have been deployed in crafting an experience that feels so distinct.
Transistor is bleak, and the first sight players get of its universe drives that point home quite well. A mysterious man lies dead on the floor in one of the many alleys of the city of Cloudbank. Meanwhile, a red-haired woman tries to remove, from his chest, the big glowing sword that was used in the murder.
As it turns out, the object is no mere common weapon, but the titular Transistor; a tool of unknown purpose that has, among many other functionalities, the ability to absorb the consciousness of those it kills. Due to that, supported by the voice of the lifeless figure she is facing, which is now emanating from the sword, the protagonist – Red – succeeds in taking it out. Advised by the man that, after such an unexpected event, the two of them should get out of town, the woman opts to do otherwise, choosing to stay in Cloudbank to confront whatever obscure person, group, or entity is behind the crime.
If that sounds like a vague setup, that is because it undoubtedly is. The playing of Transistor is as much about discovery as it is about engaging in battles against an army of robots that has, suddenly and for unknown reasons, attacked the city. The game’s plot starts out absolutely foggy, as the identity of the protagonist, her relation to the dead man, the events that led to the assassination, and the reasons for the chaos that is spreading around Cloudbank are totally unexplained as players go into their first combats; and many of them remain not totally clear until everything is coming to a close.
The only way to elucidate those and many other questions that will likely pop up in the minds of those who witness the opening moments of Transistor is by playing through the quest itself, and given the game, besides oozing charm, also knows how to set up its mysteries, it is easy to be hooked into it and not let go off the controller until those doubts receive satisfying answers.
Although interesting, that style of plot development is certainly not unique; numerous are the works of fiction that employ it. Nevertheless, Transistor tells its story in a rather original way, and it does so via an asset borrowed straight from Bastion: the constant and dynamic narration. The fact the sword absorbs the personality of the murder victim, and that Red herself loses her voice during the attack, is not just a story-related happening, as it has ramifications in presentation.
The man talks constantly: he speaks to the hero about her findings; gives her advice on where to go; remarks on the locations they visit; reacts to the enemies that appear; blurts out comments during battles; and more. It is an invariable and pleasant presence that – alongside the game’s impressive art-style and powerful soundtrack, which includes some great compositions with lyrics – lends it much of its identity. Furthermore, given that in the case of Transistor the source of the narration is constantly alongside the hero and is, effectively, her partner through the duration of her journey, which is short despite holding a few optional battle-related challenges, the nature of their relationship adds a special spice to the game.
Outside of that realm, Transistor – for the good and for the bad – also drinks heavily from the source of Bastion. The game is, in its progression, absurdly straightforward; so much, in fact, that some players may be bothered by that simplicity. From a gameplay standpoint, its adventure can be neatly summed up as a chain that alternates walking and battling. Exploration is minimal, as in no points whatsoever will players ever question themselves as to the direction they must take.
At all times, there is only one path to follow, and the game, confident enough in the quality of its battles and story to let the focus fall solely on them, is not shy to make the road forward be rather obvious. Truthfully, there are some extra nuggets of information that can be punctually uncovered by finding terminals that relay messages from other characters or let Red have access to news articles that report on what is happening around the city; and as an alluring touch, these machines, which allow the user to type comments, serve as occasions when the hero and the man inside the weapon can interact briefly. Still, these gadgets are never hidden enough to demand thorough exploration out of those who wish to locate them.
It is, therefore, in its battles that Transistor finds its footing when it comes to gameplay. Frequently, as she goes through the city in search of her next goal, which will invariably bring a little more light into the story, Red will be stopped on her tracks by an army of machines called The Process. Although their units are not exactly numerous in terms of distinct types, since there are only twelve different robots, they do cover a wide strategic palette, as there are bots specialized in healing, stealth, physical combat, long-range projectiles, shield-generation, and others.
In spite of working in these limited confines, Transistor keeps its conflicts engaging all the way through for two reasons: its battle system and the stunning flexibility of the moves Red can use. The first shines due to how the character’s only way to attack is, unless a specific power-up is in use, by stopping time. Whenever she does so, Red will be able to plan a series of actions that can include walking around the arena and unleashing the abilities of her choice, with every move she takes consuming a portion of a bar that limits the number of actions she can use in any given turn.
Since the ability to stop time and access the planning mode is only activated every few seconds, the battles in Transistor feel like the perfect action-centered translation of a turn-based combat, as they constantly switch between slices of time when foes are free to do as they see fit and moments when Red is the one that has the upper-hand. Meanwhile, the second element that makes these clashes notable is what the game calls Functions.
Effectively, they are the moves that Red acquires – either through the story itself or by leveling up – and that she can then equip into the Transistor. Like it happens with the units of the enemy’s army, there are not many of them; in total, the game has sixteen obtainable abilities. Nevertheless, they open up the door to numerous strategies.
And that is because each one of them can be employed in three ways: as one of four active moves that are assigned to the controller’s face buttons; as an upgrade to one of those selected moves; or as a passive skill. And depending on the the manner in which they are used, their effect changes completely.
The Function named Jaunt, for instance, is an evasive maneuver if set as an active move; if deployed as an upgrade, it allows the user to use a specific ability when out of the planning mode; and if set up as a passive skill, it reduces the time it takes for the action of stopping time to be reactivated after it has been used. In practical terms, therefore, Transistor takes a handful of building blocks and transforms them into a nearly infinite array of possibilities. And the game makes sure players have reasons to explore the deck they have at their disposal.
Particularly, that incentive is, mostly, achieved by how the Functions are linked to the title’s plot, which might as well be the brightest of Transistor’s features. Every single one of the skills Red acquires is a result of a person that has been absorbed into the sword and that is, somehow, connected to the events that led to the start of the adventure. Consequently, as she uses each of the abilities in their three possible roles, gamers will gain access to different pieces of the profile of the character that generated it.
Although those tidbits, for the most part, are by no means necessary for one to understand the gist of the plot, they considerably enrich the universe of Transistor and its backstory. Thus, it is quite easy – if one is truly moved by the mystery that surrounds Red and her city – for players to be compelled into trying as many combinations as they can. Like it happens with the omnipresent narration, but to a much more low-key degree, it is a brilliant integration between script and gameplay; and it goes to show how much effort was poured into the game.
A similar approach can be observed in another of Transistor’s key features: the Limiters. Unlocked by Red as she gains levels, these work as handicaps that either restrain her power (such as by decreasing the number of Functions she can activate) or give extra strength to her foes (such as by enhancing their attack). As far as plot goes, Limiters – if activated – give players extra lore about the types of enemies they face; simultaneously, on the gameplay front, they are key in allowing one to customize the quest’s difficulty so that it suits their desires.
And that is a very smart implementation by the game’s developers, because without the use of that functionality, Transistor does not really pack much of a punch and it could have run the serious risk of lacking any sort of challenge. With Limiters, however, Red’s adventure comfortably embraces both veteran role-playing gamers who enjoy being pushed to their limits as well as people who just want to get to the bottom of Transistor’s mystery and enjoy its marvelous writing, atmosphere, and art.
Transistor does hold some flaws. It has a short length; it possesses a linearity that may be perceived as exaggerated; and its constant alternation between walking and battling can feel too predictable. Its impeccable and overflowing style, however, overpowers it all, and allows the game to deliver an experience that although certainly not as refreshing or great as that of its precursor, Bastion, is still immensely enjoyable.
Its battles are dynamic and offer an uncanny amount of possibilities via simple building blocks; its plot is compelling due to its initial vagueness and the boldness found in its presentation; its highly artistic inclinations generate visuals and music of incredible quality; and its omnipresent narration, inherited straight from its predecessor, lends it a lot of identity. Due to that, even if it shares notable similarities to Bastion, Transistor is clearly not simply resting on past laurels; it is, quite stylishly, repackaging a gameplay and narrative format that achieved huge success while adding a few clever flourishes of its own. And it does so quite well.