2015.02.09 update: This game made our Top 5 PC games of 2014 list!
As the second title from Supergiant Games, creators of the critically-acclaimed Bastion, Transistor has high expectations to meet from the start. But fortunately, both for gamer and developer, it wastes no time meeting and exceeding them. Transistor is an action RPG set in a stunningly well-realized science fiction world where players are cast in the role of Red, a denizen of the futuristic neon-soaked city of Cloudbank. Details are scarce and direction even more so. Players are dropped into this Art Deco cyberpunk world with very little information, and little to no hand-holding. For an experimental indie title such as this, it’s a refreshing change of pace to see how inaccessible it is at first glance, though this may drive away certain players.
The narrative is told in a very indirect manner with little exposition. What little plot there is at first is told through cryptic cutscenes and off-hand dialogue that gradually becomes clearer the deeper in you go. As players explore the environment and their abilities, they will discover more about the world and its inhabitants. Instead of simply finding audio notes and audio logs a la BioShock, players instead learn more about the world by using their skills in different ways, encouraging players to experiment to get a bigger picture of what’s going on. Just getting to the end of the game will not provide you with an explicit understanding of the story; those who would like to learn about Transistor‘s setting and characters will have to do some digging.
Featuring the artistic genius of Jen Zee, every part of Cloudbank is stunningly beautiful, with each section carrying the detail and intricacy of a painting. Despite it’s colorful aesthetic however, Transistor manages to evoke a bleak and oppressive atmosphere. Its vibrant palette is betrayed by a heavy-hitting story with tragic characters, told mostly through the Transistor itself, a talking sword voiced by the ever-talented Logan Cunningham, who also voiced the narrator in Bastion. Despite it’s lack of heavy expository dialogue and straightforward cutscenes like most linear games, Transistor takes a far more subtle approach, which gives players a more satisfying understanding of the story and the world by the end, even though so much of it is inferred.
Transistor plays out like Fallout with real-time, incorporating elements of a turn-based isometric game by allowing players to pause the game and make a limited amount of moves before executing their plan. Outside of pausing and planning, the rest of the game plays out in real time, with enemies keeping the pressure on by respawning unless they’re bodies or “cells” are collected. As one progresses, more skills become available, four of which are hotkeyed on the keyboard like your typical APRG or MMO, with Red being able to make a limited amount of moves during each pause. A majority of the players time is spent with the game paused, and frantically trying to avoid enemy retaliation in real time. Unlike a turn-based game, avoiding damage is certainly possible in many cases, but doing so requires perfect planning and patience. Though there are action elements, Because Red lacks the ability to dodge or run, Transistor errs more on the side of strategy, with careful planning taking priority over key spamming and twitch speed.
As players level up, they can choose new abilities to their repertoire. These can be used to augment other skills. Player progression generally follows one of two branching paths, allowing for direct and indirect combat. For example, Upon reaching level three, I had the choice between an explosive attack or an ability that turned the allegiance of most enemies. Each skill can than be used as an active skill or a passive one for a different attack. If I take Jaunt(), which can be used an instant dash used for evasive action, and combine it with Breach(), a long-ranged beam attack, I can fire instantly with no long wind-up. I can then take Load(), which creates a small bomb that detonates on impact, and ad the Bounce() function to it, which increases the blast radius. Combining all of these abilities, I can clear rooms of enemies far more efficiently. Through this simple albeit profound system, Transistor offers a lot of depth and replayability for what is otherwise a fairly short game.
Rather than opting for the standard difficulty settings, Transistor allows players to select limits as they level up, which makes certain aspects of the game harder in exchange for slightly more experience points from battle. One limiter makes Cells (the remains of defeated enemies that will respawn if not collected) raise a shield, forcing you to devote moves to destroying them. If you want the game to be a bit easier, you can turn them off and if you’re looking for a challenge, you can turn as many on as you’d like, allowing you to fine-tune the difficulty in a more meaningful way than just choosing from easy, medium, and hard in the settings menu. Upon losing all of their health, players won’t immediately lose progress. Instead, they lose access to their best ability until the player visits two more access points-terminals where Red can re-allocate her abilities.
To balance this out, the player character regains all of their health at the end of each battle, taking out any long-term worries about not being able to survive the next encounter. So long as your stratagem can you get you through the fight relatively unscathed, you won’t have anything to worry about. If you do lose all your health, you can choose between retrying from the previous checkpoint or carrying on with one less skill. Outside of the boss fights, it’s unlikely you’ll die often. Despite being so forgiving, there is good incentive to strategize carefully, though if you do screw up, the punishment doesn’t necessarily have to hurt the flow of the gameplay too much.
After spending over ten hours with Transistor, I’m in awe at how well-rounded the entire experience is. Though I felt the final levels dragged for a bit too long, the game was otherwise extremely well-paced with an even spread of combat, dialogue, and exploration. Despite its somewhat short size, it comes off as a complete package with oodles of depth and experimentation for the dedicated player. With such a wide array of tactics and challenges, not to mention its New Game Plus, Recursion Mode, there’s a lot to re-visit. And re-visit I shall, because Transistor offers a near pitch-perfect experience that promises to be one of the best games I’ve played all year.