Transistor Review: Delayed Gratification
Supergiant Games’ Transistor has a lot in common with the studio’s first effort, Bastion — and it’s probably fair to say that if you like the former, you’ll have a pretty good time with the latter.
Bastion became one of those indie darlings, and Transistor carries many of the same elements and formulae that found their way into Supergiant’s first title. Transistor is a graphically gorgeous game, set in a strange world with a minimal narrative but plenty of narration. Where Bastion was a two-stick shooter, Transistor is an action-strategy game, but there are more similarities than differences. Transistor got all the high points of Bastion, but it got the low points, too.
Among those highs: tight battle mechanics and control scheme; a beautiful art style; a great soundtrack. And among the lows: a story that’s minimal to the point of being dull, and gameplay that takes a while to get its feet under it. Transistor gets strong over time, as narrative elements finally get uncovered and gameplay elements start to stack together, but it’s an uneven experience that’s prettier than it is satisfying.
Platform: PC (reviewed), Playstation 4
Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Supergiant Games
Release Date: May 20, 2014
Transistor gives you little inkling as to what’s going on as you stumble into its isometric city streets. You play Red, a woman who was formerly a singer, but whose voice has been stolen. This is not really an important story element except that it means Red is unable to speak for the duration.
Meanwhile, what can speak is the Transistor, a big green electronic sword that you discover within seconds of the start of the game. It’s buried in the chest of some poor fool, and you drag it out at the sword’s behest as it somewhat vaguely implies the dead guy’s spirit might be inside it. Once freed, the sword becomes a constant companion and defense against vicious enemies overtaking the city.
Dropping players in medias res into a story is not an uncommon approach for games, but Transistor throws out mysteries in all the wrong places. Turns out, that dude with the sword in him is pretty important and those opening seconds of the game were pretty dramatic — right before the player got there. Turns out, there’s a ton of backstory to Red, that guy, and the four conspiracy group members who attempted to kill her with the sword. But you won’t really get any of that context until much, much later in the game, and in the meantime, and the overarching question of “What’s up with these robots?” is a lot less enticing.
What you know right now is that you have the sword, and that there are robots you have to fight called The Process. These white mechanical creatures come in several varieties, mixing and matching in fights to create challenges through their combinations. Luckily, the Transistor is a powerful weapon that can stop time and let you execute strategy game-style orders in rapid succession.
The sword itself gathers up “functions,” which are various kinds of attacks, and you can execute them in real time or in “turn()” mode, which is where the strategy game elements come in. Real-time fighting is possible but is more of a last resort: The Process is faster and more effective than you are, generally, and Red often moves slow as she tries to drag or swing the heavy sword to release a short-range shockwave or fire bolts of energy. Instead, you can fire up a turn() and string multiple moves together, allowing you to strike at different enemies and even move Red out of harm’s way nearly instantly.