Discussion Review: Transistor

Review written by Matt Litten & Tim Mack.

Transistor

Tim: While Bastion didn’t completely blow me away, I can say that on any day when I can’t find anything else to play, Supergiant’s debut game is one I’d happily pick up and spend some time with again. Strangely, I feel the same way about Transistor. The art direction is stunning and inspired. The music by Darren Korb is haunting while the vocal performance of Ashley Barrett takes it to the next level. Combat in Transistor is strategic, tactical and engaging. Voice work from Logan Cunningham is like no other. But do all the parts make a compelling, cohesive whole?

The story of Transistor unfolds as Red, a singing beauty who has been robbed of her voice, fights to get out of a city controlled by a shady group called the Camerata and strange robots known as the Process. Using the Transistor as a sword-like weapon, Red unlocks various methods of attack by finding dead people, whom she was previously acquainted, that provide main, secondary, and passive skills, depending on where they are placed within the Transistor. Early on in the game, the Transistor tells Red that once they turn left to cross the bridge out of town, they are home free from the madness that led them to where they are now. Of course, Red turns right and heads directly back into the fray. From a gameplay perspective this makes sense. Why else would you be invested in a combat focused game if after an hour or so the game was done? But from a story perspective, the choice raises more questions. Who are the Camerata? Why did they push Red out of their circle? What is Red’s connection with the Transistor? Some of these questions are answered satisfactorily by the end, others left me with a vague acceptance, but no clear understanding.

Transistor’s relatively weak narrative is made up for with the robust combat system. Functions unlocked in the game are mapped to the controller face buttons allowing for attacks, as well as secondary and passive effects. Every Function has a memory usage cost ranging from 1 to 4 bits and the Transistor can only operate Functions within its memory banks which, along with unlocking additional secondary and passive slots, can be increased as Red levels up. Putting one Function in as a main attack while having two others act as secondary effects to that attack provides a vast amount of variation which in turn allows for a lot of experimentation. Since all Functions can be set to Primary, Secondary or Passive, a large part of the game is moving them around to find the best combination that suits your style of play and the combat scenario ahead.

Some Functions are ranged, some are high damage but slow to trigger close combat, while others do various damage over time or affect a radius of damage. Slotting in other Functions as secondary effects, a ranged Function may then be able to hit multiple targets at a greater distance, or chain bounce off of nearby enemies that aren’t in a straight shot from Red. Some secondary effects provide a boost to damage or reduce the amount of time an attack takes to be performed. Passive effects also provide some boosts to health regeneration or offer random bonus attacks which in some cases will flat out kill most enemies within the radius of the attack.

While in combat, if Red takes damage to the point that her health is brought to zero, instead of dying outright, one of the Functions (and any secondary effects tied to it) is removed. This brings Red’s health back to full, but obviously removes one method of attack and limits your moveset for the remainder of the fight. There were several battles I encountered where I barely made it through with only one Function remaining. Throughout each area of the game, there are access nodes that Red can jack into which allows Functions to be swapped around. If a Function is damaged during a battle, that Function won’t be restored for use until Red has found and jacked into two different access nodes.

As customizable as combat can be with all of the Function swapping that is possible, Supergiant also adds a difficulty curve that can be just as easily enabled or disabled in the form of Limiters. Limiters vary from increasing enemy damage variables or the chance of additional enemies spawning upon death, to boosting an ability of Red’s while reducing the effectiveness of secondary or passive functions. Bastion had a similar difficulty modularity and was one of the more engaging aspects of that game. I’m glad to see a return of that style of challenge with Limiters, even though I find them to be extremely difficult.

Functions can be utilized in real time, but the true strategy is brought to life when Red pauses time and plots out her position in relation to enemies and queue up different Function attacks in succession. Of course, moving during the pause uses up a portion of the timeline available for queuing up actions. Some Functions also take longer to perform so finding the right balance between the type of attack and the order in which to execute them adds to the strategy and enjoyment.

Matt: I can totally understand some of your reservations with the storyline and depressing tone. While Transistor doesn’t have a narrator who describes your actions as they happen like in Bastion, the Transistor provides running dialogue throughout practically every second of the game. While the voice acting is excellent and meshes with the mood of the game, the Transistor’s nonstop yammering in such a flat, monotone, depressed cadence does wear thin after a while. During some sections I found myself being lulled into sort of a trance by the Transistor’s melancholy voice and attitude to the point that I would actually lose track of what he was actually saying. His words were going into my ears, but my brain wasn’t absorbing the information being dispensed. For me it required a lot of effort and concentration to follow every detail of the storyline.

Overall, though, I loved the atmosphere and, unlike you, grew attached to Red and the mysterious man inside the Transistor and wanted to see them through to (hopefully) a happy end. An ending, by the way, which really delivers a satisfying payoff, an all too uncommon feat in games these days sadly enough. From the final battle, through a lovely scrolling cutscene, to a culminating post-credits final scene, I left the story on a high and immediately began to “recurse” the game in New Game+.

It sounds like we both can agree on the fact that the battle system is friggin’ awesome. And quite a pleasant and unique surprise to be honest. I didn’t follow a whole lot of specifics about Transistor leading up to its release, but in my mind I had just sort of built up an expectation that the game was simply going to be Bastion in more of a sci-fi scenario. However, it turns out the two have very different mechanics. In certain ways I guess you could say Transistor is like Bastion turned into a real-time with pause tactics-based RPG, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. As you have already outlined, Tim, the combat is based on a modular system of Functions which represent various types of abilities. In the heat of battle, these abilities can be used repeatedly in real-time as enemies move and attack at the same time, or the action can be paused so you can plan out Red’s movements and attacks until the turn meter is empty. Certain actions can be stacked multiple times over, while more powerful attacks require more of the turn meter and thus may only be usable once or twice at most. Using the pause mechanic allows you to defeat enemies with greater precision and strategy, but after each use you have to wait for the turn meter to recharge. Functions are severely limited during this downtime. Some abilities work during the recharge phase, but most can’t be used even in real-time until the meter is back to full strength. So you really do have to pick your spots on when to pause and when to play at full speed.

The diversity of play styles allowed by the function system is phenomenal. As an additional example, you can equip a healing function to the secondary slot of the dash function as the primary ability so that every time you dash a small portion of health is regenerated like a mini-heal and dodge in one action. Replace that heal function with another one and suddenly the dash begins spewing forth an area-of-effect barrage of explosives or leaving behind a trail of electricity on the ground that will damage enemies walking over it. One of my personal favorites was pairing a quick attack with a secondary function that would temporarily charm an enemy to fight as an ally. For larger scale battles I discovered a strategy that would allow me to crowd control by quickly charming a couple enemies to draw the attention of the remaining hostile enemies so I could move without danger or make a made dash to escape if Red’s health was drawing low.

So many function combinations between primary, secondary and passive slots are available that it’s hard to fathom any two players using the exact same loadouts. The system is incredibly well balanced, too. Just when you think you have found a function combination that seems like it’s becoming too overpowered, you face an enemy or battle scenario where it doesn’t have the same effectiveness. This smacked me right in the face during the final showdown. I entered the battle with my charm and dash-heal loadout equipped not knowing what to expect, only to find that those functions were not very effective. I then switched up to sort of a rogue play style of using a stealth camouflage ability to provide brief moments of safety from enemy sight while also being able to sneak into position behind the boss for boosted backstab damage. Again, the tactical options are vast.

Another brilliant implementation of the function system is the way it ties into the storyline. I don’t know if you noticed this, Tim, but each function is associated with a different character and different sections of biographical data for each character is linked to how a function is used. In other words, using a function as a primary ability reveals one part of a character’s backstory, using it as a secondary ability reveals more detail, and so on. Only when you have used each function in each available slot will you get the full breadth of the narrative. Again, this goes to the game requiring extra effort to get the most out of its storyline, but the way the gameplay and story blend together in this way only sucked me deeper into the world and made me want to experiment with different abilities and expand my knowledge of the characters and surrounding events at the same time.

Did you give New Game+ a try, Tim? Or was one playthrough all you could muster the energy for?

Tim: I too was incredibly caught up in a high by the end and started a “Recursion” run immediately. What I like about the New Game+ functionality is the fact that everything previously unlocked remains and as Red moves through the story unlocking the same Functions, they stockpile such that if one is lost in battle, that particular function can be re-equipped at one of the terminals found throughout the levels. I got maybe a third of the way through the second playthrough but stopped playing after realizing I had marathoned my way through most of the game in one day. I haven’t gone back to the game since, and I think it has to do with how the overall world and narrative left me feeling less than excited for the future of humanity.

I do like how the backstory of the various characters unfolds as the Functions are slotted into the different Transistor slots, but I also think that also adds to my disconnect with anything in the game world. Everyone Red comes across is already dead and they only provide her with a new style of attack. Without having a previous living connection, I had no driving interest in finding all of the Function’s former character flaws and traits.

For as much praise as I can offer about the combat, I still find myself at odds with the game. The world of Transistor is a stark, depressing, nightmarish utopia. The world is beautifully realized with some vibrant colors in a Nuevo art deco isometric presentation. But it is also empty except for enemies. Adding to my anxiety of spending any time in the world is the music by Darren Kolb. I love the Bastion soundtrack and often play it when writing. There is something haunting about the music here that builds on the empty world that is just depressing and unpleasant to me. With Bastion the mystery to find out more about Caelondia was compelling. To me, Transistor’s mystery became lost in the complication of the Camerata social structure. Because of this, I didn’t feel a connection to Red or the Transistor because the motivation to unravel the circumstances which led Red to obtaining the Transistor in the first place just didn’t jive with me. The only motivation I had to keep playing was leveling up Red to see what new unlock or Function became available to make combat even more interesting.

Even though there is an oppressive weight to the narrative, however, the game has such a unique combat system and phenomenal art and music, that I can’t help but recommend it. The seemingly limitless variation plus the self imposed difficulty provide a deep game that subtly ramps up without holding the player’s hand.

Tim-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Gorgeous visuals
+ Fantastic combat
+ Challenging New Game+

Cons:
– An odd disconnect between Functions and NPCs
– Narrative feels less impactful due to the constant chatter of the Transistor

Matt: You pretty much stole the words right out of my mouth, Tim. New Game+ “Recursion” mode is great because you continue to earn multiple copies of the same functions, which only opens up more opportunity to experiment with different loadout strategies to match the increased difficulty of the Process encounters. I was sort of hoping that there would be additional storyline reveals while replaying the game, but sadly I didn’t notice any different dialogue or scenes from the first time through. Beyond that, I actually found myself enjoying the game more on the second run than the first. Partially because it gave me the chance to pay closer to certain story details I missed as well as uncover more of the Function character background stories to gain a fuller understanding of what exactly was going on. I also used New Game+ to fully test out the 10 unlockable Limiters, which really do amp up the challenge and alter how you have to approach a battle depending on the combination used (activating all 10 and trying to survive gets pretty brutal). Each Limiter also increases experience point intake by various percentages so there is additional incentive to truly test your skill with the Transistor. It’s a brilliant system that allows for a whole lot more nuance to difficulty adjustment compared to the standard method of choosing an easy, normal or hard setting.

Speaking of tests, another interesting replay value booster comes in the form of optional challenge rooms. These challenges, of which there are five different types, focus entirely on mastering the Transistor’s many functions and will extend the life of the game by many hours. Speed tests for example task you with eliminating a certain number of Process within a time limit, while planning tests provide a small set of functions and challenge you to figure out how to use them to kill all enemies on the screen in a single turn meter. However, the most challenging and time consuming tests are the wave survival ones. You start off with a small loadout of randomly generated functions and a low memory capacity, and as you defeat each Process a new function is added to your arsenal and the Transistor’s memory capacity increases by a point. Due to the random generation, at times success seems to hinge on whether or not you’re dealt good opening hand, but by and large skill rules over luck if you learn how to use each function effectively.

In addition to the extra challenge and play time, I appreciate how the tests are integrated within the flow of the storyline. Had they all been lumped together in a mode completely separated from the main game, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with them beyond an initial curiosity. However, new tests only become available by entering “backdoors” found throughout the game world which lead to a sort of private simulated resort island for Red to chill in and listen to unlocked tunes from the soundtrack. Doors within this area periodically open granting access to new tests, but generally only one or two at any given time. This provides ideal pacing for following the story, taking a break from the Transistor’s banter to complete a couple challenge rooms, and then heading back out to continue Red’s journey.

If it hasn’t already become crystal clear at this point, I absolutely love this game. While at times I did feel the disconnect you speak of, Tim, by the end of the game I was so immersed in the atmosphere and artistry of the world and attached to Red and her mysterious relationship to the man inside the Transistor that some of the plot’s emptiness and inconsistency didn’t bother me. Of course, it helps that the combat system, with its diverse array of functions and difficulty modifiers, is so completely enthralling. Even if all facets of the story don’t always click, you’ll be far too busy charging forward to face the next Process engagement and staring and listening in awe as the striking visuals and jazzy pop rock score sweep you away to a sci-fi world like no other.

Matt-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Unique real-time with pause battle system
+ Function system allows for broad range of ability combinations
+ Limiters provide nuanced risk/reward difficulty modifiers
+ New Game+ and challenge tests add substantive replay value
+ Breathtaking art design
+ Phenomenal soundtrack
+ Engaging story and characters (if you put in the effort)

Cons:
– Storyline is a bit confusing and hard to follow
– Constant monotone Transistor dialogue may lull you into a trance-like state

Game Info:
Platform: PC and PlayStation 4
Publisher: Supergiant Games
Developer: Supergiant Games
Release Date: 5/20/2014
Genre: Action RPG
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review codes provided by developer

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!