Review: Transistor

Not just content to rely on a vivid aesthetic or the same powerful narration of its predecessor Bastion, Transistor takes SuperGiant's style and art into a much deeper and thoroughly-enjoyable game.
Review: Transistor
Date published: May 22, 2014
2 / 3 stars

Transistor is a pseudo-isometric action RPG by Supergiant Games, the makers of the critically-acclaimed Bastion.  It's quite a pedigree to live up to, and when it was released that they were working on a second game, that was a release that came with a lot of hype, expectations, and skepticism.  The question on everyone's lips: would it be as good as that breakthrough commercial success that was Bastion?

Answering that question is a complex affair.  It is a fundamentally different game in many respects from Bastion.  This is no sequel or gentle iteration; while there is the hallmark style in the audiovisual sense of it, the actual gameplay is refined, deeper, and much more engaging.  While Bastion was more of a pure action adventure that was carried primarily by its' strong story and the quality of the narration, Transistor has refined that craft, adding a much more complex progression and combat system to its already-excellent storytelling and art direction.

That Supergiant quality of art direction shines through strong and pervasively throughout Transistor.  Every aspect of the game, from the handcrafted and hand-painted pseudo-isometric world, to the cutscene art, to the immediately-memorable soundtrack, has been crafted with a lot of care and creativity.  The style of Transistor, from the first to the last second of the game, is always present.  There's a lot of games in this day and age from AAA titles to the independent game circles which could be accused of being soulless or to lack direction, but Transistor is neither of those two things.  Transistor knows exactly the kind of game it wants to be, and exactly the kind of world that Cloudbank wants to be, and it never falters in that direction.  This is easily the strongest art direction in a game this year, and perhaps even one of the strongest art directions I've seen in a game period.

Something that Transistor does very well in this, is using all of the tools at its disposal.  Bastion leaned heavily on narration and exposition dumps to communicate its lore, but every aspect of Transistor, from the character interactions, to your abilities, to the soundtrack, oozes that cyberpunk world that Transistor is set in.  The main character is a musician named Red, and the soundtrack has several compositions meant to be the player character's own, and there are such little touches to that, such as being able to hold a key to make Red hum along to the soundtrack of the game.  And this isn't a character with a dissonant voice actor either, the voice actor that provides the voice of Red certainly sounds to me like someone who could be a singer.  Accompanying the narration are consoles you can mine for lore in their messages, the background surrounding the Transistor and its abilities, and a variety of little asides in your central hub, all of it accompanied by an ephemeral, haunting soundtrack.

It's easy to get lost in paragraphs discussing just how extraordinary the production values of Transistor provide.  This is a game experience that many games have tried, such as the similarly-genred Shadowrun Returns from Harebrained Schemes, but this is a game that despite its indie origins is easily top of its class.  There are few games that have the kind of production values that Transistor gives us, and even many AAA games fall short of the art direction here.  This is the kind of game that no doubt will press forward the omnipresent games-as-art no doubt, because its easy to call this game a work of art.

The depth offered by the function system creates a highly-complex and
tactical combat system that rewards many different play styles

Speaking of Shadowrun Returns, anyone who has played that game will find instant familiarity with the combat system in Transistor, as they share very similar cyberpunk themes.  It's much like the cyberspace combat in Shadowrun Returns, with "programs" the player can use with the titular Transistor sword to attack the games many 'process' enemies.  It plays almost like an augmented reality where the AI programs manifest as enemy robots, and you use the "programs" in the Transistor sword to augment your physical attacks, or provide you with special abilities, one such example of which is "Jaunt()" which allows you to sprint to or away from enemies.

Where Bastion was a comparatively simple action adventure, Transistor is a thinking-man's action RPG, requiring you to understand and use your abilities in many different situations, not all of them combat in the strictest sense, to progress.  It punishes you for using those abilities poorly or trying to just brute force your way through without paying attention to maneuvering and positioning: while you won't die, losing your health loses you access to some of your abilities, forcing you to limp through to a save point with only some of your skillset available.  I felt this was a very shrewd move, as it penalised failure without entirely stopping progression and it certainly helps to curb the frustration with mechanics when you're not quite told how to use them.  Sometimes, however, it feels like that mechanism is just as bad as a fail state, because there are times, especially later on in the game, where if it removes a key skill you need to overcome an enemy defense, or avoid an enemy offense, you're pretty much good as dead anyways.  And there does become a problem where, if you proceed into a new combat down a skill, only to find out that you can't proceed because of a skill you lost the previous one, you can't load back before that previous combat, since Transistor doesn't support a traditional save system.  The lack of that in an RPG is definitely a deficiency in the game, and it puts a crimp in a system that otherwise does a stellar job in keeping things moving forward.

Oh, and there's no invulnerability frame on the animation when you lose an ability, and if you're getting hit hard enough, or bullet-spammed enough, you can end up losing another as you watch the animation pass by.  May as well just reload at that point, but the frustration factor certainly creeps back in then.  Only happened to me twice, both towards the end of the game, but neither were situations that were recoverable.  Back to the checkpoint for me, though thankfully they're pretty decently placed, although they did come to basically herald difficult combat due to the games propensity to put them just before such.  They do commit a sort of cardinal sin of checkpoints though, being sometimes placed before lengthy cutscenes, so you have to replay the cutscene if and when you restart the combat.

Ultimately, while it does require some thinking, the combat in Transistor is generally pretty fair: there were no times where I felt that I failed because of something that was fundamentally stacked against me.  This isn't an RPG with loaded dice, or enemies with some clear advantage, no, Transistor gives you all the tools you need to succeed at any given time in any of those combat situations, and it's up to you to determine how to best use them.  If you fail, then its because you didn't understand those tools and didn't use them properly, not because of a lack of balance or broken enemies.  This is both a strength and a failing of Transistor, for while this is generally a good thing and a fair way to have difficulty, especially when it comes to having to learn to use your tools in clever ways, the fact that these tools come with little in-game explanation as to their use does leave one often having to fumble through problems.  This would be much more of an issue if the game ended or you had to play failed battles over, but it is an issue nonetheless.

Indeed, there's a lot left between the lines in Transistor, leaving one to explore and consider the vast world created in Transistor's Cloudbank, and while I generally consider this to be a good thing, there will be some who will as a result find things difficult to follow.  I don't know if that's really to the detriment of the game, as not spelling everything out to the player leaves a lot to the imagination, and also leaves a lot to be explored as you poke through the various elements of the game and its world.  This is the kind of game lore deep enough to need a canary and mining equipment if you're trying to sift through all of it, and I absolutely adore that the gameworld presented has such an expansive background to it.  Even the combat abilities are part of that lore, each of them relating to people who were "processed" into programs which you can take into the Transistor sword, and each of those abilities has extensive lore sections which are progressively discovered as you use the ability more.

The sacrifice the game makes in trying to maintain that flow is that
it does not always give the player all the information needed to progress

The game does have some flaws in this regard however.  As much as certain things like getting through combat can be forgiven as things you have to learn and adapt to, there's some parts of the game where it feels like progression turns into the adventure game problem of just rummaging about for things to click to make the story progress.  These weren't common but they did occur more often than I'm comfortable with brushing off.  The linear nature of the game usually brings you through one set path, which sometimes just leads you to a seeming dead end with no indication of how to turn that dead end into progress.  And while there is a tutorial section in the game, you're actually not going to reach it until some time in, and that doesn't help the dead-end syndrome I described.

The one crack in the game's execution from a non-design stand point was some crashes I encountered while alt-tabbing during the game (primarily grabbing screens and the like).  Since most people aren't multi-tasking during the game this probably isn't a problem for them, but it is something to be aware of if you do multi-task during your game session.  There were some odd stutters when going back and forth in the planning phase, though this only happened after the release day patch so it may be resolved by the time you're reading this since it seems it may be a regression.

One of the failings of a lot of games that go for the kind of strong aesthetic that Transistor and Bastion have is there becomes a disconnect between the story that they are telling and those mechanics.  A lot of games lose momentum in either on-rails spectacular scripted sections or Hollywood-like set pieces whose mechanics are dissonant with the normal gameplay and thus end up feeling out of place, but this is one thing the design of Transistor does very well, as the whole experience is very cohesive and gels really well.  Nothing ever breaks the flow of that game play.  You always feel you are progressing, moving forward, and that in turn helps to keep that engagement in the game and its story.

While excellent as a whole, the story feels padded towards the end,
and the final boss encounter is unchallenging and anti-climatic

The length of that story might be a sticking point for some people.   My first playthrough weighed in at about five or six hours ish, and that was with some time taken to poke about on the side trails.  Quite frankly those who know me know that I'd rather a shorter story told well than a longer one dragged out over so many hours, though, and Transistor's tale is one worthwhile, and worth playing through again just to experience.  To make a truly replayable experience, you need just one thing: a game worth playing again.  And Transistor certainly is worth playing again.

Transistor is a game with a great amount of soul, all in all.  It has absolutely gorgeous production in art, sound design, and music, a compelling story which feels drawn out towards the end but is a deep and moving narrative, and the tactical and complex combat system offers plenty of challenge.  The game has a few flaws, and is marred with technical issues with crashes for some users, but it is well worth the attention nonetheless.

Not just content to rely on a vivid aesthetic or the same powerful narration of its predecessor Bastion, Transistor takes SuperGiant's style and art into a much deeper and thoroughly-enjoyable game.