Transistor review: a fresh voice

Bastion was one of the strongest indie studio debuts in recent memory, but it also set expectations high for Supergiant Games. Nothing short of excellence could live up to those lofty heights. Transistor is an outstanding sophomore effort and shows a maturation of the graceful tone and style forged in its previous game, even if its voice isn’t as unique the second time around.

Voice for the Voiceless

Voice is an appropriate starting point, because so much of the richness in Transistor is articulated by actor Logan Cunningham. He takes a more active role this time, acting as the companion to the voiceless Red. Her voice was stolen by the affluent city leaders known as the Camerata, and Cunningham provides his talents as a special techno-sword called the "Transistor." By traveling with Red and giving commentary, he provides much-needed context for Supergiant’s creative world. The voice performances across the board are fantastic, including a brief but nuanced turn from the chief antagonist. But Cunningham in particular shines with a role that affords him a great breadth of emotional weight that underlines Transistor’s key themes.

Intimacy and the Afterlife

Everything in Transistor seems calibrated to express certain ideas about intimacy, from the animations to environmental art. Red’s relationship with the Transistor isn’t without struggle. It’s portrayed as a burden, as her slight frame can only drag the oversized weapon behind her. Likewise, he speaks to her with a familiarity that becomes more profound during the course of the game. He was once a person who knew her, but now he’s trapped. He can help her, but he’s frustrated by his inability to be anything more than an object. Meanwhile, his own presence in limbo, and the way the Transistor picks up something left behind from other people you find, raises questions about what is happening to them. Are they in the Transistor too? What is the afterlife in this world? Transistor consciously invites these questions, and sometimes vocalizes them itself. Supergiant has a knack for inventing its own worlds that operate by their own rules, and part of the pact of playing them means accepting those creations on their own terms. Transistor is set in a city, Cloudbank, and so naturally it’s filled with a wealth of internal logic, characters, and relationships to sort through. It’s incredibly inventive, but some parts of this world’s reality aren’t well-defined, making the fiction occasionally hazy and hard to track.

Hold That Thought

Transistor is through-and-through an artful take on the strategy-RPG. Combat is focused almost entirely on careful planning. You’ll pause the action and queue up a list of commands, and then watch them execute against the Process--a legion of ominous, robotic enemies unleashed by the Camerata. You can still strike enemies outside of this format, but it’s clearly not how it was intended and should probably be reserved for emergencies. Combat is enjoyably tense in the moment of queuing up commands and watching them decimate your enemies, but there’s not much to do between them. While the meter recharges, you really have no choice but to run away and bide your time. This makes battles somewhat inconsistent: it’s fun to plan your strategy and mop up Process goons, but too much time is spent seeking shelter and waiting for the prompt to appear again.

Red takes on a Jerk

However, this approach encourages experimentation. Red finds or earns 16 abilities during the course of Transistor, and each of them have three different functions: a primary attack itself, mapped to one of the buttons; a modifier to another ability that is mapped; or a passive ability. The Break ability, for example, was a mainstay in my arsenal--but it could have just as easily been used to give more planning actions, or to increase the efficacy of another attack. Eventually each mapped ability can have two modifiers, in addition to your passive traits, so toying with them all to find the ideal combination is a must to enjoy Transistor to its fullest. It even encourages swapping these functions out often. Story details are unlocked by slotting the equipment into different positions. Plus, if your health is depleted, one of your skills breaks until you locate a set number of ability stations. It would be foolhardy to soldier on with a broken function, so you’ll need to swap it out for one you might not have tried. I would find myself grumbling at the game for forcing me to do this, but would usually discover some new idea or combat aspect I liked even better. If you find Transistor too easy, it lets you equip any combination of several difficulty modifiers that grant their own rewards, usually in the form of increased experience. Transistor is short, but feels appropriate for the story it’s telling, and a second "Recursive Mode" is available immediately afterwards that remixes the enemies.

Conclusion

Bastion certainly wasn’t a fluke. Transistor cements Supergiant Games as one of the sharpest, most stylish, and unique small developers. Though some of its flourishes aren’t quite as fresh the second time around, Transistor speaks with a unique creative identity, mostly successfully refreshes solid RPG mechanics, and tells a poignant story worth experiencing. Final Score: 8 out of 10.
This review is based on a downloadable PlayStation 4 code provided by the publisher. Transistor will be available on PC via Steam and the PlayStation Store for $19.99. The game is rated T.