Reviews – Transistor

In 2011 Supergiant Games released Bastion, a game which combines a beautiful atmosphere with a unique gameplay experience.  I fondly remember “just raging for awhile” and once Rucks jumped in with his narration, I was hooked.  After completing the game, I remember having discussions with friends about THE best combinations we had found for the Kid.  It wasn’t until that point that I realized just how much someone’s play style would shape their experience in Bastion.  I wondered how Supergiant could possibly follow that up?  The answer was simple.  Create another game with a beautiful atmosphere and a unique gameplay experience.  But does Transistor do enough to escape the shadow of its predecessor?


The heroine of Transistor is Red, a singer who is left voiceless after a failed assassination attempt on her life.  She travels through Buttbank battling robots known as The Process.  The Process were unleashed by the same group that tried to take her life, the Camerata.  The Transistor plays the role of narrator, in addition to being Red’s weapon.  Though really the narration is more of a one sided conversation.  It acts as a guide and will often chime in with its thoughts on what to do next while traveling through the game. Every so often Red will encounter a terminal where she can put her thoughts onto a screen and have an actual conversation with the Transistor.  However, her goal is pretty clear.  Revenge against the Camerata for what they have done to her, the Transistor, and Buttbank.


Combat in Transistor can be performed in real-time or planned through a Turn.  Triggering a Turn will freeze time and allows the player to move Red around the battlefield and use skills, known as Functions.  Movement and use of a Function will drain the Turn bar indicating how many more actions Red can perform.  As Functions are performed against enemies, a damage or status stack will appear after each action on the affected enemy.  Once the Turn is planned out, it is executed and Red will launch through the series of events almost instantly.  Once completed Red is left vulnerable and unable to perform any Function in real-time or Turn based until the Turn meter refills.  While I found that certain combinations of Functions catered to real-time battle, I spent the majority of the battles using the Turn function.  I enjoyed how the Turn feature moved the game toward the strategy genre and transformed the combat into something puzzle-like.


Skills in Transistor are known as Functions, and here is where things get a bit crazy.  There are 3 different slots a Function can be used in.  Functions can be used in an active slot, an upgrade slot (modifying an active slot), or a passive slot.   The Transistor has a memory limit and each Function has a varying memory cost.   This means that Functions must be chosen wisely since the active Functions cannot be larger than the memory limit.  As Red levels up, she is granted access to new Functions, extra slots and increased memory.  Transistor does a fair job of starting the function pool small and building over time, but it can be overwhelming.  The large Function pool pushes a player to experiment and customize their experience.  The game contains a Test area which can be accessed from time to time.  These challenges limit access to functions which nudges a player toward trying new combinations.


There are no set difficulties in Transistor, but there are Process Limiters.  Each Limiter will slightly change an aspect of the game to increase the difficulty.  As more Limiters are turned on, the gameplay becomes more difficult, however the user level bonus is increased.  I found that playing with a few of the limiters on put the difficulty right where I wanted the game.  They didn’t ruin my experience by making things overly difficult, but added enough so the enemies weren’t pushovers.


Supergiant Games have clearly outdone themselves with their art in Transistor.  Buttbank is a gorgeous world and a pleasure to get lost in.  There are sporadic sightseeing points on the map to interact with and I found myself running to every one I found.  The colors.  The lighting.  Just…everything.  I wanted to explore every building I was allowed in and miss nothing.


One of my favorite parts of Bastion was its soundtrack.  I listened to it well beyond my play time with the game, so I had high hopes for Transistor’s soundtrack.  I am excited to report that the games composer, Darren Korb, nailed it.  Red is a singer, and this isn’t just a bit of backstory, but instead important aspect of the game .  Music plays large part in the game and is woven throughout the story beautifully.  Did I mention there is a button to make Red hum?  No?  There is a button, on the controller, that when pushed, will make Red hum.  I used it quite a bit.


While I very much enjoyed my time with Transistor, one thing  I was not a fan of was the limited types of enemies.  From start to finish the same enemies are fought over and over.  Eventually the enemies are upgraded to version 2.0 then 3.0 which changes their patterns and difficulty slightly, but by the end of the game I grew tired of seeing the same enemies encounter after encounter.


My only other issue with Transistor is how the story is told.  Don’t get me wrong, there is a great story being told here, but a good chunk of it is hidden away.  There are stories within the Functions.  Each Function is actually a well known citizen of Buttbank , but to decrypt their full story a Function must be used in each of the three Function slots for at least one battle.  Each slot type unlocks a new chunk of story for those truly interested in Buttbank and its people.  In addition to the Function stories, there are a few missable areas that will trigger small “cutscenes” with Red and the Transistor.  Without these additions, the main story line feels bit light.

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It’s hard to not compare Transistor to Bastion.  Transistor excels in many of the same areas as Bastion, but it does so in such a way that it creates a unique experience from its predecessor.  The combination of real-time and planned combat keeps the game interesting, while its art and music create world that a player won’t want to leave. Arguments can be made as to which Supergiant Games title is better, but really I love them both.  The real decision is where does it fall in my list of top games of 2014 come December.