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.
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.