In this day and age, it is very, very hard to go into a game completely blind. Even if a person doesn’t read reviews or anything, just the act of looking up a game online for purchase will expose you to some kind of rating or opinion on the game. Personally, I’m mostly okay with that. I do my research, and, I mean, I write these articles to let other people know whether I think a game is worth their time, as well.
It really surprised me, then, that there was a game that I hadn’t heard any buzz about before it was released. Even more so because it was from the fairly high-profile team that had created Bastion, which was itself something of a sleeper hit a couple of years ago. As it was also one of the first fairly high-profile indie games to hit the latest generation of consoles, I figured I would check it out and see what it was all about.
So, let’s say I’m going into it blind as well. What even is Transistor?: It’s an isometric action game, but otherwise kind of hard to describe. It’s made by Supergiant Games, whose big breakout hit was Bastion, an Xbox and Windows exclusive of the same style from a couple years ago.
What’s it about,though?: In Transistor, you play as Red, a lounge singer and the resident of the sprawling technical metropolis of Cloudbank. Due to an unfortunate sequence of events, Red finds herself without her voice and on the run from the Process, a legion of entities that have been causing people to disappear all over the city. Her only companion is the Transistor, a sword which has absorbed both her voice and, apparently, the essence of the dead man who she found the sword impaled in. Through the course of the game, Red must figure out how to retrieve her voice and get away from the ones chasing her.
Sounds… kind of like a cyberpunk version of The Little Mermaid.: That’s actually a pretty apt comparison, at least for part of it. The talking sword even makes a pretty good Sebastian, without the stereotypical Jamaican accent.
But the sword is the only one talking?: Yeah. The Transistor functions kind of the same way as Bastion’s narrator does, piping in every few seconds or so to provide exposition. The difference is, this time around the sword also provides a bit of one-sided conversation. Extremely one-sided, as Red can’t say anything back, and the city is disturbingly void of any other living characters.
How does it play?: Kind of like Bastion, but also kind of not. The isometric action works pretty much the same way as you’d expect, with Red slashing and shooting at enemies in real time. Or rather, that’s how it goes for about the first five minutes of the game.
After that, Red acquires the ability to freeze time and plan out a list of commands, and then having them execute all at once. This mode, called ‘Turn()’, gives Red a time meter that she can fill up with actions and motion. The downside to doing this is that, with a couple of exceptions, Red is unable to act for a short time after using ‘Turn()’, leaving her vulnerable and exposed.
Then why use it at all?: Because it makes it way easier to aim attacks and to dodge enemies. Of course, you aren’t forced to use it, except in certain situations. It is all pretty much up to one’s personal style of play, but I found that Turn() adds a definite element of strategy to what would otherwise be a pretty typical action game.
What kinds of abilities do you get?: Red collects ‘functions’ both through the plot and by collecting experience points after clearing rooms of enemies. Functions can be used in three different ways. First, they can be equipped as actions, giving Red more options in combat. Second, they can augment already-equipped actions, making them stronger or adding status effects to them. Third, they can be equipped as passive abilities, granting Red herself buffs or debuffing enemies.
Red also acquires limiters, which are kind of the opposite of passive abilities. Limiters debuff Red or buff her enemies. The tradeoff there is that Red gets more experience points the more limiters she activates. It’s a pretty good way for a player to inject challenge into even the little fights.
So, here’s the question. Is it good?: Well, let me put it this way. If you liked Bastion, you’ll like this. Even if you didn’t like Bastion, there’s at least an even chance you’ll like this.
But do you like it?: From a purely gameplay perspective, it isn’t bad. I don’t know that I would call it revolutionary or wonderful, but it’s solid. It’s just that I think I may have expected it to be a bit more evolved than Bastion was. And in some ways it is, but if a person is expecting something radically different from the gameplay, that person might walk away a bit disappointed.
However, like Bastion, there is a lot more going on with the game than gameplay mechanics.
How so?: The game is quite simply beautiful. Not in the ‘graphically impressive’ sense, but rather in the artistic sense. The Transistor’s voice actor is absolutely wonderful, the art has a very hand-drawn quality to it that is visually distinctive, and Darren Korb’s soundtrack is awesome enough to be worth the price of the game on its own. And when I say awesome, I mean really freaking awesome.
But all of that could be said about Bastion, too, right?: Yeah, and… well, that’s fair. And in all of those regards, I’m pretty sure that Bastion was better. Each game has its own distinctive charm, and each is equal parts compelling and movingly beautiful. But the fact of the matter is, I don’t know that they are substantially different from each other, and the gameplay can get a bit bland.
Not to say that they aren’t good games. I like Bastion for its visuals, its voice acting, and its soundtrack, and I like Transistor for the same reasons. It’s just that I don’t know that gameplay has anything to do with it.
Would you recommend it, then?: Well, I said before that the soundtrack is worth the price of the game all on it’s own, so think of it as buying an amazing soundtrack that comes with a pretty decent game for free. And really, you could do a whole lot worse than that!