The easiest way to describe Transistor is to compare it with Bastion, the previous release from Supergiant Games. While not a direct sequel, Transistor has a lot in common with its predecessor: quirky art style, action RPG combat, isometric viewpoint, mute protagonist. But don’t mistake it for a lazy rehash: Transistor has plenty of its own distinct flavour.
Transistor stars Red, a popular singer from the neo-noir city of Cloudbank. She is introduced immediately after escaping an assassination attempt by robotic villains known as The Process. Though she loses her voice in the attack, Red gains the help of the titular Transistor: a powerful, multifunctional techno-sword inhabited by the soul of the game’s narrator.
Dynamic narration was one of Bastion’s most celebrated features, and its inclusion in Transistor is no surprise. The narrator—once again played by Logan Cunningham—constantly questions, explains, and comments on current events. But unlike Bastion, the narrator is not omniscient; he is trying to put the pieces together, just like Red. He acts as a guide and companion, and his words have clear impacts on the world. Enemies are identified only as “Process” until the narrator gives them a name; the Transistor calls the first foes encountered “creeps” in a passing comment and from then onwards, Creep is their name. Others include Younglady, Badcell, and Jerk.
Combat integrates action and turn-based RPG elements, resulting in a system which Supergiant has called Turn(). Red can wail on enemies using the Transistor’s four skills in real time or she can activate Turn() which freezes time, allowing her to move into advantageous positions and queue up attacks. Supergiant’s creative director Greg Kasavin describes it as “a turn-based game where you’re the only one who gets to take a turn.” It’s far from an instant-win ability though; Turn() has a movement/ability limit, Red is vulnerable until it recharges and some enemies have tricks of their own that render all-out attacks useless.
Like Bastion, Transistor relies on a combination of visual and music to convey the tone and context. Perhaps the biggest compliment is that neither outshines the other; Transistor is beautiful to observe, and the music shifts between exciting and poignant, creating an uneasy but enjoyable tension.
Transistor is clearly a lovingly crafted game. The music and art style blend well and set an excellent and mysterious tone. Even the minor details are there, bringing deeper context or even just humour. Dynamic info boxes show how many times a poster has swayed opinions, list the condition of a motorcycle or the number of stairs between zones, and the combat info asks “do you even read?” if you queue far more attacks than needed to kill an enemy. Transistor is the evolution of an already successful style; only time will tell if Supergiant Games has managed to capture the same essence that made Bastion a hit.
Originally published in HYPER Sci-Fi special.