Transistor Review: Delayed Gratification
Using the turn() ability is essential, although in the early half of the game it’s a major annoyance to wait for the Transistor to recharge between its uses. Red is slow, The Process is quick, and using your strategic planning to get Red clear of some attack still doesn’t make up for the fact that she’ll be terrible at evasion no matter what for the next few seconds. The irritation is saved some by the fact that, rather than dying, taking too much damage causes functions to overload, limiting your ability to fight back but allowing you to keep going.
Despite being useful to fighting battles, the turn() system never quite taps the strategic potential it implies. You’ll use it to avoid damage and inflict pain in an organized way, sure, but more often than not it’s just a better way of spamming damage. The occasional stun move is useful to your success, but with enemies moving around quickly and more or less randomly, the mode never provides a ton in the way of planning or deftly executed strategies.
Functions get really useful once you can start customizing them. They can cobble together in several ways: each can serve as a primary attack move, as an upgrade to another primary attack that gives it new properties, or as a passive buff. The game encourages you to mix and match by unlocking more story in the files attached to each function, and you’ll find tons of special access points throughout the game that let you shuffle your functions around into new configurations.
As you travel through the game, you’ll gather up more functions, either by leveling up or exploring (the Transistor can suck up more “traces” of some dead folks you find along the way, and this is a major means of getting backstory info in the form of text files on those people). And once you have a fair number of abilities, the game gets really interesting.
Transistor finds its best strategic underpinnings as you hit that critical mass of abilities, because it becomes less about outlasting your enemies and trying to keep constantly moving, and more about smartly using all the abilities available to you to stun, dodge and ambush.
In fact, with functions accruing in a hurry toward the middle of the game, Transistor gets a bit on the easy side — Red becomes pretty much a match for everything the game throws at her, and you’ll never see much worse than just tougher and tougher combinations of enemies. So Transistor dishes out unlockable difficulty upgrades called “Limiters,” much in the same ways as functions, that can be switched on at any save point. Limiters make enemies tougher in some way, but reward the player with more experience points toward leveling up if they’re activated. They allow you to set your own challenge level as you work through the game in both its standard and new game plus varieties.
Once Transistor gets on its feet — providing players with lots of functions with which to play and slowly divvying out story that informs you about the crisis in the city of Cloudbank, who the conspiratorial Camerata are and, most importantly, why you should care — it becomes a much more engaging title. The trouble, however, is that so much of the early game can be frustrating and provides little pull to bring you deeper into its world.
The narrative in particular comes at a trickle, and with gameplay at first feeling like you lack the means to be effective as you struggle with a limited selection of functions, there’s a time when it’s hard to care about Transistor at all.
The sword itself yammers at you incessantly in the same way Bastion’s narrator does, and similarly talks a lot without necessarily saying much. Logan Cunningham, who voiced Rucks in Supergiants’ first game and was nearly the only voice heard in that title, returns here as the Transistor, and turns in a great performance. But while the clear intent is to get players to bond with the soul in the sword, the constant, sometimes meaningless commentary can just as easily become grating. It’s only later, when more and more story comes together, that the Transistor develops into an engaging character and not just a source of banter.
Really, if you’re willing to put in the time to unlock every function, swap every ability into every different slot and use them all, and find and use every limiter, you’ll uncover a fascinating, surreal tale in Transistor — there’s a pile of text found in the menus for each of those elements that can be unlocked to provide backstory. The Camerata’s plans and methods are strange but purposeful, the backstory of Red and Cloudbank inform themes of dissent and conformity, and the player’s relationship with the sword itself finally makes sense in the last moments of the game, completely recoloring everything that came before it.