‘Transistor’ reboots the action game

This article originally appeared on The Oakland Press.

Like a powerful computer, ‘Transistor’ from developer Supergiant Games is a complex and fascinating machine capable of feats of beauty on a high level, but based at its core on a solid foundation.

Transistor 4

Transistor stars Red, a musician who’s had her voice stolen, and the Transistor, a sword-shaped object containing the personality of her talkative companion.

Players control Red, a popular singer in the retro-futuristic city of Cloudbank who has lost her voice for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. She’s come into possession of the Transistor, a large sword-like weapon that has a voice and personality of its own. The Transistor becomes your companion, providing a running commentary and explaining certain details of the world of Cloudbank, as well as helping Red fight The Process, a malevolent virus entity that’s tearing the city apart.

At first blush, Transistor might look like an action game with an overhead view similar to developer Supergiant Games’ previous title, Bastion. But trying to play Transistor be just whacking enemies with the titular object proves to be exceedingly difficult. Instead, players can use the “Turn” function, which allows you to stop time and plan out a series of actions, like shooting, dodging and setting up traps. It lends the game a strategic bent that’s missing from most action games, and allows you to take the time to calmly consider your actions instead of mashing one button repeatedly.

The combat is incredibly deep, thanks in part to the dynamic qualities of every ability you learn as you level up. Each ability can be used independently, as an active skill, or it can be used as an add-on to another ability, or simply as a passive stat boost. For example, the Bounce ability, used by itself, will make a projectile that ricochets from one enemy to another. But used as an add-on, Bounce adds a chain-reactive effect to other skills. Used passively, it will create a shield for Red that reflects some attacks. Every one of Transistor’s abilities function this way, making possibilities seemingly endless.

Though it uses hand drawn, pre-rendered environments instead of 3D ones, Transistor is unmistakably gorgeous. The amount of detail put into the backgrounds is outstanding, and some still frames of cutscenes could be paintings in their own right. This extends to the character design as well’ even though Red never speaks, her personality is still apparent through her animations; a defiant flip of her hair, or her casually shouldering the Transistor while standing idle.

The turn-based battle system lets players strategize in otherwise chaotic circumstances.

The turn-based battle system lets players strategize in otherwise chaotic circumstances.

However, Transistor’s personality is heard nowhere as clearly as in it’s sound design, which tends to resemble melancholic lounge song with tones of electronic music scattered about. The soundtrack is perfect to evoke an high-tech society with old-fashioned style, struggling its last breath against a seemingly unavoidable fate. When using the time-stopping Turn ability in battle, most of the instruments are muted, and only an echo of distant singing can be heard. And when you’re not in combat, there’s a button whose only function is to make the otherwise silent Red hum along to the music, providing a melodic reprieve from the action.

Though it’s never stated explicitly, Transistor seems to take place inside a computer under threat of serious malfunction, and most of the characters seem to be functions within the code. The story is relayed somewhat vaguely, mostly through the often entertaining commentary of the Transistor, who was himself a person in the world until just before the beginning of the story. Even the abilities you use in combat seem to be part of the story, as each one is a citizen of Cloudbank who left behind an imprint of their personality after they passed. You can discover more about each character’s backstory by leveling up their ability, which is done by utilizing that function in every possible configuration. Ingeniously, this acts as an incentive for players to try many different combinations of skills, rather than settling early in the game on a single set.

There is a good amount of replayability in Transistor, as optional “backdoor” missions put players speed and planning talents to the test by challenging them to defeat a ground of enemies in a limited amount of time, or using a single Turn. Finishing the game allows you to restart the story in “recursion” mode, letting players keep their earned skills, but with an amped-up challenge level as well. And instead of having a conventional difficulty setting, Transistor players can use “limiters,” special conditions that make the game significantly harder by creating conditions like giving all enemies shields or having them spawn clones when they die. Limiters can drastically change how the player has to approach each fight, but reward you with inflated experience points after each combat.

Transistor is a beautifully crafted experience, both in terms of gameplay and presentation, and though the main story is finishable in about five hours, there’s a lot of extra meat on the bones for players hungry for more. I even found myself getting a bit choked up by the end of the sas, yet enthralling narrative. My biggest complaint is that Supergiant Games has crafted a fascinating computerized world in Cloudbank City, but barely scratched the surface by the time the credits roll. Transistor is downloadable on PCs through Steam and on PS4 through the Playstation Network for $20.

Supergiant Games provided a review code for the purposes of this article.

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