Developer SuperGiant Games is best known for giving the world Bastion on Xbox360. Bastion was so amazing in every possible way, that when Transistor was announced as an exclusive to PS4, no one questioned that it would be a unique and fun experience that was guaranteed to be a must own. Transistor nails it. This action RPG has a striking art style, absorbing music composition, and engrossing tactical combat. Transistor is the epitome of how exceptional indie games can be in this new generation of gaming.
Playing Transistor gives the distinct impression of being a techno-assassin set loose in the cyber world of your computer. You play as “Red” (aptly named by your red locks of hair) and are dropped into the thick of things with little to no explanation. Developer SuperGiant Games specifically wanted to keep most elements of the game a mystery, so you can enjoy the experience and story as it happens, something few developers take care in handling properly anymore. For this reason, I won’t talk about the story too much.
Get With The Program
At the game’s opening
you’re standing in front of a dead guy on the floor with a massive sword
hanging out of his chest. Oddly enough, the sword tells you to pick him up and
get going. That’s right, the sword speaks. Apparently, the “soul” or “Process”
as it’s referred to in the game, is what the main characters leave behind in
cube form when they die. When you acquire a “Process” it becomes a new attack
ability to add to your repertoire. Each of the Square, Triangle, Circle, and X
buttons are slots for your attacks. Each Process that you assign to a slot
requires a set amount of memory to use, just like RAM for your computer. At the
beginning of the game you have approximately 6 bars of memory available for
processes. Each new process ranges in cost from 1-4 bars. Once your memory is
full, no more attacks can be assigned.
The combat in Transistor is simple, yet deep. As you
free-roam through the environment you have the option to attack enemies
immediately with the skills you’ve acquired, just like any action RPG. Your
massive sword makes attacking a somewhat slow affair though. BUT, with the
press of R2 you enter a stopped-time, “Turn”. During this Turn, you can
strategically plan out your attacks, seeing how much damage will be afflicted,
and then execute them once planning is complete. A planning meter represents
the actions you can take at the top of the screen. Each attack takes up a chunk
of the meter, as does physically moving across the terrain. Once you’ve mapped
out your attack, you initiate it, and watch the mayhem ensue as Red rips
through enemies, one after another. Time is significantly slowed once your
attack actually takes place and most of the time all attacks land before
enemies even have a chance to move. In the later game though, some enemies can
warp out of the path of your attacks, so you’ll have to plan accordingly.
As you progress through the game and kill the sentient enemies that reside in the city of Cloudbank, you level up. At each new level attained, you are presented with a few upgrade options. These upgrades range from: More memory (bars), passive ability slots, upgrade slots for your existing abilities, new abilities, and limiters.
Limiters are added functions that limit your effectiveness in some way in exchange for extra XP. For example, one early limiter you gain access to is called “Efficiency.” This limiter enables the enemy to strike with twice as much power. You, the user, will gain a level bonus of 4% for each kill. So it’s a tradeoff. It basically gives you added experience for a troublesome cost. I found it to be a fairly creative way to tune difficulty, as there’s no difficulty choice in this game (no easy, medium, hard). By adding these limiters, more experienced players can stack on the limiters and increase the difficulty of the game, while reaping the rewards in the process.
When the sword speaks, it flashes in rhythm, and so does the light bar on the PS4 controller. There’s a setting in the options that allows you to set this audio to the controller speaker, which is off by default. I thought that was a mistake, and upon trying it, immediately loved it. To me it just deepened the connection between you and the Transistor when the audio came from the controller. I very much felt that the bond with the Transistor was my own, as he’s regularly chatting with you, guiding you, and commenting on the on-goings around you. By having the audio come from the controller, in conjunction with the flashing sword on screen and on the light bar, it effectively creates the link between the game world, and the real world.
The Total Package
Transistor is such a well-designed game. I can’t over emphasize how perfectly everything blends together to make an outstanding gaming experience. The environments, the art design, the music, the mechanics, the voice acting, the strategy planning, all of it, superb! I’ve never been one to fancy the music in a game. Usually I don’t notice it all that much unless it’s the main theme, or simply a poor choice for the game. But the music really stood out to me in Transistor, almost like it was a character itself. It so perfectly evokes the mood and atmosphere of the world, I just had to make mention of it here.
The Meaning of Death
Another exceptional component of design in Transistor is the combat abilities and how they’re handled. Normally when you die in combat, you restart from the last checkpoint. This can really slow down or hamper the forward progression and experience of the game. When your life bar is depleted in Transistor, one of your Processes (attack abilities) are overloaded and removed from use. So in essence, you can die several times, but not have to restart back at the beginning of a difficult section of the game. It’s not without repercussions of course, that favored attack is now lost to you.
Overloaded processes can be restored after reaching OVC Terminals (basically save points). OVC Terminals are also where you can change up which attacks you have slotted and fiddle with upgrades/limiters. Furthermore, it’s a great mechanic for getting you to change up favored abilities. Instead of sticking with the same four abilities throughout the game, you find yourself replacing overloaded functions with new ones, with a pleasant new outlook on battles. You can literally mix and match your abilities at will and always find new ways to approach combat, each as effective, and fun, as the last favored setup. It’s all a testament to the masterful design in Transistor.
Every aspect of this game adds to the whole, and you know it was made by gamers for gamers. Combat is fun. Abilities are varied and a joy to use. The music moves you. The atmosphere grabs you and transports you to the world. The voice acting is emotional, and the use of the controllers’ features is simple yet effective in linking you to the game on screen. In a world of sequels and recycled gameplay experiences, fresh new IP like Transistor, with a creative take on common tropes leaves me feeling excited for the future of gaming. Transistor is a fantastic title that should not be missed.
Striking art style
Stirring and emotional music
Solid voice acting
Let me think.....
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