Supergiant Games hit the big time a couple years back with Bastion, an action-RPG best known for its Tom Waits-y narrator, who provided personalised commentary on your (nearly) every move. Fans of gravelly voices will be pleased to hear Logan Cunningham is back in Supergiant’s followup Transistor, this time lending his sonorous larynx to the title character: an enormous sword/USB drive of unknown origin found sticking out of a corpse at the start of the game.
The title character isn’t the main one, though. That mantle belongs to the popera singer who discovers the Transistor: Red. Her voice has mysteriously been stolen, but her music is woven throughout Darren Korb's electronic score. Red is exceptionally well-rendered through beautiful, detailed animation and character design. Wherever she goes in the futuristic cyberpunk city of Cloudbank, she drags the enormous, talking Transistor around, leaving a trail of sparks in her wake. It’s as iconic an image as any.
The Transistor isn’t omniscient like Bastion’s narrator: it’s a participant. It comments on the action breathlessly, shouting panicked or triumphant dialogue as the player flails or succeeds. In between combat sequences, its character and relationship with Red emerges: they are symbiotic in a way, relying on each other for both survival and more personal needs.
Cloudbank itself acts as a kind of third lead character. It’s a dying metropolis being slowly torn apart by the cybernetic Process, whose forces make up Red and the Transistor’s combat opponents. Taking cues from Blade Runner, anime, and circuit board design, Cloudbank is a grand backdrop to the action that takes place there, and certainly a city whose destruction would make architects cry.
Gameplay is Transistor’s biggest strength, both in its spiritual succession to Bastion, and its forays into new territory. The isometric ARPG setup and modular face-button attack system are familiar, but it’s swaddled in different genre clothing and features an unconventional take on turn-based combat that, when mastered, really works.
The game’s many combat encounters can be played as twitchy, real-time affairs, but the “Turn” mechanic adds an optional tactical element to the fracas. If the going gets too tough, you can freeze the action, plot out a handful of moves and attacks, then execute them rapidly. Successfully planning your attacks to anticipate enemies’ movements is extremely rewarding - and vital, too, as Turn’s power is balanced by its cooldown timer. A well-conceived plan can hit much harder than spamming attacks in real-time, but it leaves Red exposed for precious seconds afterwards. It’s always a balancing act.
Similarly, your abilities themselves merit a lot of juggling. The Transistor isn’t just a sword or even a sword/character; it’s a vessel for crazy, formidable powers. In the mix of abilities, you’ve got your laser bolts and your cluster grenades - but others are truly delightful, like the ability to summon a robotic dog (independently commandable in Turn mode) to help you out. He’s your best friend! More innovative is Transistor’s modular combat system. Fully unlocked, you’ve got four active power slots with two modifiers each, and four passive power slots. Each ability you learn can be used as an active or passive ability, or as a modifier for another, resulting in much diversity in many combinations, which would moderately please Vulcans. But there’s a catch: each ability takes up memory in the Transistor’s circuitry, so you’ll have to manage your memory use with an FTL-like power meter. You’ll end up using everything too: when your health reaches zero, rather than killing you, the game randomly “overloads” an ability, disabling it until you get further into the game. It’s a great way to force players into changing up their tactics on a regular basis without feeling too punishing.
All this attention to combat means something has to be left behind, and that something is storytelling. Transistor’s tale is told through the environment, through fragments of dialogue and memory, and through terminals scattered throughout Cloudbank. These tiny glimpses at story are intriguing, but don’t build to much more than a vague sense of us-against-them. It works emotionally more than it does logically. The bond between girl and sword is a powerful one, the Transistor’s aching sadness driving it to the extent that a sword can be self-driven. Occasional touches of humour are present, though, mostly found in the terminals that yield news reports, message boards and advertisements. This isn’t a bleak game; its melancholy is more romantic than that.
Are its superb combat and customisation mechanics enough to make Transistor an instant recommend? Not quite. The dearth of concrete story to grab onto makes it hard for its emotional yearning to fully connect, and for the Process to come across as anything other than mindless (if well-designed) video-game nasties. But in the heat of the moment, the yearning tugs the heartstrings, and the Process are formidable foes, so maybe I’m overthinking things.
Maybe it’s best not to look at this game about logic boards in a logical manner.