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Transistor Review

You always have a plan.

Red stands over the man’s body, slumped on the floor against a wrought-iron railing with a great big sword sticking out of his chest. Did she do this? Who was that man? Why is the sword, a thick green circuit board-like construct, talking to her?

Transistor drops you right in the middle of this calamitous situation, as Red hauls the eponymous talking sword from the man’s body and tries to make her escape, dragging its great weight behind her. The mystery of this in media res opening makes for a powerful and attention grabbing story point, dropping you into this world without resorting to the cliché of an amnesiac protagonist. She simply can’t speak.

Instead, as you control Red through the first few battles with the starkly white Process with their red eyes, that the Camerata sent after her, the events that led up to that opening and the powers that start to affect the city of Cloudbank as you make good your escape only come into focus for you, the player, by way of the voice of the Transistor, talking to Red throughout the game. It’s a step away from the narration of Supergiant Games’ first release, Bastion, but that voice is just as prevalent, he’s just talking directly to Red.

The gameplay does have a number of similarities to Bastion, coming as another action RPG that plays out in an isometric view. The graphical style is just as visually arresting, though it heads in a different but equally vibrant direction, with an Art Deco-infused Cyberpunk city and layer upon layer of visual effects atop this. The combat too is an evolution, which focusses on timing, positioning and a finesse to the use of the four abilities, called Functions, that the Transistor can hold at any one time.


What makes it stand apart is the new planning phase, dubbed Turn(), in which time freezes. As the Transistor says to Red, “You always have a plan,” and this mode pares back the visuals to allow you to take in the full situation, analyse the various kinds of enemies you face, and then let you put together a series of quick-fire moves and attacks that fill up an action bar at the top of the screen before unleashing them all in one go.

It’s often a much more effective option that playing in real time, though not always, with the game’s difficulty clearly balanced with its use in mind, but it does have a few side-effects. The main one is that, once your plan is executed, you must then wait for Turn()’s action bar to refill before you can attack again. During this cool down, you have to dodge enemy attacks for several seconds, creating this intriguing interplay between fight and flight which constantly swings back and forth, but you also have to be aware of the Process enemies that you’ve killed, as they’ll drop Cells that will respawn unless you pick them up quickly enough.

It makes each battle a very tactical experience and one that’s very welcoming and accessible, thanks to a few of the nuances to the system. For one thing, you can take as much time as you want in Turn() to plan your moves, seeing a pretty accurate prediction of what will occur, but also allowing you to use even the tiniest remaining sliver of the action bar for a Function, rather than giving you a hard ceiling to butt against. Additionally, taking too much damage and draining your health bar during a fight won’t kill you right away, but will see a Function get overloaded, slightly handicapping you for the immediate future, but simply meaning that a visit to an Access Point is in order.


Here you can alter the Functions loaded into the Transistor, as well as adding certain handicaps, called Limiters, for those that want a greater challenge – there’s also Recursion, a so-called ‘New Game +’ for once you’ve completed the game. With a total of fourteen Functions to collect over the course of the game through levelling up, your abilities very gradually build in complexity. Each Function can be set as a main ability, used to augment another or used passively, creating a vast set of combinations to try out.

The push to always alter your loadout helps keep battles interesting, but if there’s a weakness to the combat, it’s a certain lack of variety to the enemies. You’ll see the same handful of archetypes trooped out time and again, such as the Creep with its laser beam, the Snapshot with paparazzi-esque flash photography, the Clucker’s mortar-like attacks and so on. However, over roughly 8 or 9 hours of gameplay, there’s still enough variation that it doesn’t drag, and though battle can come to spam you with enemies, there’s plenty of interesting twists and combinations that play against the push for you to experiment with different Functions.

Should a Function be overloaded in battle, you’ll need to reshuffle your abilities, of course, and you are regularly able to access a secluded area which houses various trials and skill tests with different combinations, but there’s also the intrigue of unravelling the stories that the Transistor’s Functions hold. The Transistor can retain a person’s consciousness, and each of these lends you a new ability. However, by using each Function in its three capacities, that person’s story is revealed and another small facet of the game’s story is uncovered.

In some ways, the story’s initial thrust reminds me a little of a classic revenge story. The initially mysterious Camerata and the Process are out to get Red, but she’s more than happy to charge headlong into battle with them, with the Transistor’s great power backing her up.

Getting a greater context for the various characters in the story and the world of Cloudbank is done excellently. Various terminals are dotted around the city, and visiting them gives an insight into the world, the apocalyptic events that are consuming Cloudbank and the antagonists. However, Red was once the city’s most popular singer, before the opening events stole her voice away from her. It’s only via these terminals, where she can type messages, that she can talk back, something which leads to some rather touching moments.

Yet, while Red cannot speak, she can still hum, and it’s one of the reasons why the game’s music is simply sublime. Darren Korb’s particular blend of sampled beats fused with real instruments returns, but with the voice of Ashley Barrett brought further into the mix. Outside of battle and a few other moments, holding L1 will spill a beam of light from the heavens, as Red clutches the Transistor close and hums hauntingly and soulfully along to the background music. It quickly became one of my favourite things to do in the game, closing my eyes and just listening for a few moments, and it’s actually something I feel adds yet another layer to the story.

What’s Good:

  • A simply sublime graphical style for this futuristic city.
  • Turn() freezes time and gives combat an even more tactical approach.
  • A very clever levelling system that belies a complex set of combinations for Functions.
  • An engaging story which very gradually unfolds, evolves and shift.
  • Another simply excellent musical score.

What’s Bad:

  • Could be considered short for an action RPG, at around 9 hours long, though this is extended by a New Game+ mode.
  • A degree of repetition to the enemies that you face and how you deal with them.

Following on from Bastion, I doubt many would have begrudged Supergiant from heading down the same path again. While Transistor does hold certain similarities, such as having the constant presence of a voice and the general underpinnings of the action RPG gameplay, the Turn() planning phase completely transforms the manner in which you will tackle a fight, making it a far more considered and tactical experience.

Add to this the strengths of the world that has been created, Darren Korb’s soundtrack, the charm of Ashley Barrett’s voice, and the clever story that unfolds, and Transistor is a near essential game to own on PS4.

Score: 9/10

  1. Dominic Leighton
    Since: Mar 2012

    I’ll definitely pick this up tomorrow, Bastion was amazing and amongst my favourite games last gen.

    Comment posted on 20/05/2014 at 17:06.
  2. Lieutenant Fatman
    Since: Jul 2013

    Hurray! Glad to see it’s as brilliant as I hoped it would be, great stuff.

    Comment posted on 20/05/2014 at 17:10.
  3. MrYd
    Since: Mar 2011

    I’m glad there are reviews of this appearing before it’s release. 9 hours (or some reviews claiming 5 hours) is far too short for anything claiming to be an RPG. I want 2 or 3 times that _before_ I start on NG+

    I might just have to wait until it’s on sale.

    Comment posted on 20/05/2014 at 17:19.
    • Tuffcub
      On the naughty step.
      Since: Dec 2008

      That’s rather unfair, you got 40+ hours of RPG game with something like Fallout, which costs £45. This costs a tenner (im guessing) so wont be as long.

      Comment posted on 20/05/2014 at 17:42.
      • MrYd
        Since: Mar 2011

        More like £15 isn’t it?

        So around £2 or £3 per hour of game? Compared to a big 40+ hour game giving you an hourly cost of £1, give or take.

        And RPGs do benefit from being longer. You need time to really get into all the intricate systems. Unless it’s dumbed down to fit into a 5 hour game. (Or it’s an “action” RPG, which are RPGs for people who don’t like RPGs ;)

        Of course, it’s presumably a much smaller team making the game, so they might not have the resources to make something huge. So we’ll be generous and make some allowance for that. And things seem to point towards the New Game+ mode being worthwhile, so we can double the value there.

        And probably discover that it’s about 30 or 40% overpriced. £10 and I’d be all over it tomorrow. £12, and I’d probably go for it. (Child of Light being a similar recent example at that price that I loved)

        No sign of a PS+ discount is there?

        Comment posted on 20/05/2014 at 18:39.
      • ron_mcphatty
        Since: Sep 2008

        Surely it’s not all about £/hour? I can understand you’d rather have a longer game, but if we’re going for numbers alone the size-of-smile to £/hour ratio might be higher in this game than Fallout, so could be better value? Personally I think the size-of-smile:£/hour ratio of the Metal Gear Solid HD collection is the absolute best I’ve ever had at about 10:30/200, I challenge you all to do better!

        Comment posted on 20/05/2014 at 19:17.
  4. ArrebatoTarugo
    Since: Jul 2013

    Can’t wait! I will download this tomorrow.

    Comment posted on 20/05/2014 at 17:22.
  5. DividSmythe
    Since: May 2012

    Finding hard to resist this. I think I’ll wait a little bit though.

    Comment posted on 20/05/2014 at 17:58.
  6. bunimomike
    Since: Jul 2009

    Watched the video which was a great insight into how it all works (processes, functions, etc).

    Also, the wonderful tangent of listening to Red hum the music. Stunning!

    Comment posted on 20/05/2014 at 18:03.
    • bunimomike
      Since: Jul 2009

      Just made it to the end of the video when you ramp the volume up on her humming (as the dialogue between TSA folk is over). Dammit, that’s a beautiful voice on her! Wow. Bewitchingly so.

      Comment posted on 20/05/2014 at 18:05.
      • Stefan L
        Community Team
        Since: May 2009

        Isn’t it just? That was really the only way to let the video end.

        Comment posted on 20/05/2014 at 18:13.
  7. Kennykazey
    Since: Mar 2010

    Sounds like Supergiant hit it home again. Definitely buying this.

    I wish Bastion would make it to more platforms, I have it on PC but I’d double dip on PS4.

    Comment posted on 20/05/2014 at 22:07.
  8. colmshan1990
    Since: Apr 2009

    Great review (and video!). Sounds like yet another top Indie game hitting the short and sweet spot perfectly. Can’t wait to play it.

    So much nicer to play than some repetitive shooter, or an open-world which continually involves me travelling from point A to B to repeat the same tasks.

    Gaming is getting to the point that I wish AAA games were simply Indie titles with bigger budgets rather than the same rote trite.

    Comment posted on 20/05/2014 at 22:53.
  9. KeRaSh
    Since: Nov 2009

    Great video. Can’t wait to finally play this. At what time does it go live for us Europeans?

    Comment posted on 21/05/2014 at 08:24.
    • DividSmythe
      Since: May 2012

      Now live. I can’t do link for some reason.

      I couldn’t resist in the end.

      Comment posted on 21/05/2014 at 12:26.
  10. Germanos
    Since: May 2011

    Why aren’t games like this coming out in boxed editions ><!? Would love to buy it and put the box into my collection, as it looks like a great game to have.

    Comment posted on 21/05/2014 at 09:26.

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