Transistor Review | The Empty Set

2014 has been an amazing year for indie games, with titles like Shovel Knight, Nidhogg, Guacamelee,  and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter showing indie games come in all shapes and sizes. While Shovel Knight in particular has stolen the show, there’s another title that I think deserves just as much, if not more praise: Transistor.

In Transistor players take on the role of Red, a famous singer that was recently robbed of her voice quite literally,  on an adventure through The City of Cloudbank as it is overrun by a mechanical menace known as the Process. Bastion‘s narrator lives on in spirit through the titular Transistor, a glowing great sword capable of absorbing the consciousnesses of those it impales, which speaks to Red and provides narration.

The beautifully painted Red is quite the celebrity in Cloudbank, until her voice is stolen.

The environment of Transistor is brought together into a consistent package that’s further fleshed out through little touches. The much beloved art style from Bastion returns with a new tone and direction that befits a grittier, dystopian paradise in its death throes. All of the characters are matched with believable voices that suit them, and the voice actors have brought their A games. A strong soundtrack is obviously an important part of a game focused on a singer, and it does not fall short of high expectations. The music and Ashley Lynn Barrett’s beautiful singing voice serve as the perfect backdrop to the events unfolding on screen. I don’t think I’ve seen all of these elements coalesce into a more impressive product, even on a AAA scale.

As mentioned earlier, the little details enhance Transistor in ways that just make sense, and show Supergiant Games‘ attention to detail and willingness to go the extra mile. Red is given an unbelievable amount of character in spite of the fact she’s a singer that no longer has a voice. She can’t speak, but she can type. When you access any of the terminals, that serve to flesh out the story in the evacuated Cloudbank, Red will converse with the nameless man in the Transistor by typing into the text box while you browse. Her body language is used to convey more than most other games accomplish in pages of dialogue. Music is a big part of Red’s person, and even without being able to sing there’s still a dedicated hum button. Seriously, all the button does is cause Red to stand and hum to the game’s music.

The little touches didn’t stop at Red though, they even permeate the game play elements. In a futuristic world dominated by computers and technology, your abilities are named after coding concepts such as functions, permissions, and limiters. For those completely unfamiliar with programming it’s inconsequential and doesn’t interfere with game play in the slightest, but for those who know, it’s a nice touch.

Combat takes place in two forms. There’s your standard Action-RPG fare where you freely move about and use the Transistor‘s abilities in real time,  and then there’s Turn() phase combat. Turn() uses the Action Bar, Red’s equivalent to stamina, to stop time and plan a series of moves. Each action has its own cost, including movement, during the Turn() phase. Once you’ve planned your moves, you can either cancel and change you plans, or execute the chain of commands at extremely high speeds while the enemies move in slow motion. However, when planning your Turn() phase you have to consider the enemies’ slight movements and knock back effects. Once your Action Bar is depleted, you’re left with virtually no ability to fight back until it regenerates.

The depth of combat is amazing considering its simplicity in control and execution. Positioning is particularly important, especially when using Turn() phase in in battle. A good Turn() phase takes into consideration enemy locations, positional damage bonuses, offensive output, and your positioning when the turn ends.

Strategic planning
Strategic planning is key to success when using the Turn() phase.

Character customization comes through managing your active, passive, and upgrade slots unlocked through leveling and interactions with certain npcs. Functions can be assigned to each of the Transistor‘s slots, for a cost, and grant different abilities depending on which slot they’re placed within. For example, the function “Crash()” is a short range sword attack with a stun effect in the active slot, grants resistance to damage and slow effects in the passive slot, or can apply stun effects to another functions when placed in an upgrade slot. Needless to say this adds tons of variety to combat encounters. Variety is encouraged as well, because each function is related to a former resident of Cloudbank, and using a function a requisite number of times in a given slot unlocks pieces of back story on the character and city.

Limiters are another aspect of customization. Using limiters can alter enemy forces, making them stronger, faster, more numerous, and more in exchange for increasing the experience points for successfully completing battles. The best part about this system is that players can alter difficulty at any OVC terminal encountered, so if you’ve stacked the odds too strongly against yourself in a certain battle, it’s easily remedied by temporarily dropping limiters.

All enemies have their own strategies and special traits as per usual, and as you progress they upgrade to versions 2.0 and 3.0. Upgraded versions bring about differences more significant changes than simple stat scaling. The way you fight them can change greatly between versions. The Clucker for example will fire egg bombs that deal splash damage, from afar. They try to flee when you approach them, making it an easy kill to cut down a fleeing enemy. Clucker Version 2.0 will have a built in defense mechanism though: It leaves an anti-chasing trail which will prevent you from pursuing directly behind. The trail is easily circumvented by using Turn() to quickly assault a fleeing Clucker. However Clucker Version 3.0 again provides a countermeasure, being able to end Turn() phases abruptly with their Turn() disruptor. It gives you the sense of fighting a force that’s always evolving.

Meet the Cluckers.

What really sets enemies apart though is their looks. Form seems to follow function in combat, to an extent. From humanoids to canines, or even weird ostriches egg combinations, the Process are strange and certainly different in terms of looks. Even better, their names seem to come from the Transistor‘s insults. Personally, seeing a group of Snapshots admiring a picture of Red, established as a popular celebrity, then mobbing her like the paparazzi upon noticing her was one of the best enemy moments in the game.

Can we go back to those little touches again? We’ve already gone over them, but there’s just so many of them. They’re everywhere. The way Red is unable to carry the large Transistor and drags it along, sparks skittering across the ground behind her, the observable vistas that only exist to show off more of the city’s hand painted design, statistics being revealed at particularly relevant points (“Kills Today: 1” as Red pulls the Transistor from the nameless man’s chest), the music becomes distorted when perception of time slows in Turn() phase, and numerous other additions all serve to augment the already immersive experience. Again none of this had to be done, but they went the extra mile to bring life to the dying world they created.

The Transistor gives Red various levels of feedback when planning Turn() phases. However if you get a little too carried away with overkill, he offers feedback of a different sort.

Finally, when the game ends players can begin a new “recursion.” This is essentially a new game+ where non-story specific encounters are procedurally generated as opposed to a simple difficulty slider. The thousands of different function combinations, the procedural battles, and variations of applied limiters can lead to an astronomical number of unique encounters. If you enjoy the battle system there’s almost limitless re-playability.

Normally this is where I’d list my complaints about a game, but honestly I don’t see many flaws in review of Transistor. Objectively, it’s is a very linear and fairly short game. These are usually seen as flaws in today’s gaming community, but I found the relative brevity of the main story and streamlined linear approach facilitated Transistor‘s narrative. I got a great story, I didn’t get lost in side objectives, and  I wasn’t worried about grinding for experience or money. I simply enjoyed the combat on the way to the most satisfying experience I’ve ever come away from a game with.

If forced to make a real complaint, it’s that the linearity hurts replay value for those not interested in Transistor‘s combat. The relatively small amount of out of the way exploration means there’s little reason, outside of combat, to go back after wrapping up the story. No matter how great a story is, subsequent viewings are always less impactful.

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