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Transistor: A Beautiful, Story-Driven Experience

Previews By Christina Gonzalez on April 14, 2014

You wake up on the floor after a chaotic event, get up and go grab the huge JRPG-esque sword that’s somehow….talking to you? Last year, at PAX East, one of my favorite things on the floor was Supergiant Games’ Transistor. At that point, recently announced. The game blends genres, most prominently action RPG with strategy combat.This past weekend at PAX East I got the chance to demo the game, which will be released on May 20th.

I was excited to get my hands on the game, since I had been looking forward to it for some time. The demo opens as Red has been left for dead. Yet, she lives, silenced but not down. Since now things have gone wrong in the world, she has to assess the situation and what she can do. Enter the sword, which calls to her from a corpse, beckoning her to take it with her.

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Transistor is narratively driven, with the narrator from the studio’s previous game, Bastion, Logan Cunningham, returning in a different way for the heroine Red’s journey. Cunningham provides the lines for the title sword, Transistor, who helps and guides Red. Red was a singer before things went awry, and the event left her without her voice. Now, Red doesn’t always listen to the sword at her back, but the sword will guide and help you you along the way. That fact might turn some people off, but personally, I thought the lines in the demo added to the experience in creating a sense of both foreboding and hope. Some won’t like to feel directed, but in a game driven by its story, as Transistor looks to be, the decision makes some sense. The sword having a voice isn’t a way to bring in an omniscient narrator. In fact, the sword is a character and doesn’t come across as all-knowing, just hopeful and knowledgable.

It’s helpful for the tutorial, which pits you against your first couple of enemies and introduces the turn-based system. Combat in Transistor can be done the old fashioned way. You have a small ability hotbar that you can change and upgrade as you progress. Initially, some of the abilities will be limited to disruption and damage, but you’ll also gain mobility and other skills like backstabs to help you along. You’ll be able to switch to a turn phase once Red’s action bar is full. Within this mode, everything is shadowed tactical style, and you can walk Red into position, aim abilities and see their ranges, and plan combos. Enemy health after using that particular ability (or several stacked) will be shown, helping you figure out your tactical game. At one point, I fought a boss and then an upgraded version of the same boss with minions that needed to be addressed first. Another set of enemies were more vulnerable to backstabs, so I had to line those up and then make sure to get out of harm’s way by the end of my turn.

Transistor’s combat system is forgiving. You’ll be able to undo your moves in the turn phase in case you overstep or figure out a better way. By dragging the line of your abilities and careful positioning, hitting multiple enemies won’t just be a luxury but a necessity. Take your time here as there isn’t a rush. Being able to undo moves was a smart one, especially for those not used to strategy and tactical games.

The abilities you do get are fun and will send Red all over to execute. For example, that nasty boss has just come back with minions and not only are you going to have to run for cover (which can be destroyed by enemies, by the way), but stop when you’re positioned for turns and you have a full meter. You’ll probably find yourself doing a mix of running around, traditional combat, and turn-based combos to seal the deal. Combat gets even more fun when you can upgrade your abilities. In the demo, I earned enough XP to upgrade just one, but I added chain lightning to my most used ability. The upgrade, called Bounce, would chain out lightning damage to nearby enemies when hitting an enemy, Like your combat turns, you can undo and switch around upgrades and abilities, so the game lets you figure out exactly what works for you, for the enemies you’re facing, and what you enjoy.

Finally, Transistor is a beautiful game. The aesthetics are a big part of the game, as well as the multiple layers that bring it all together. From the sword that talks and our heroine with the stolen voice but undampened spirit, captured in layers of sound and art. At one point during the demo, there’s a large advertisement sign of Red on the wall, back in her singing days. “Hey Red, it’s you” the sword points out. And as you go there and look at it, music swells up, singing, memories. Transistor warns you not to linger, but you can if you wish. Or depart slowly. For those who love story-driven games and enjoy tactical combat, Transistor should blend them nicely.

Christina Gonzalez / Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column. You will also find her contributions at RTSGuru. Follow her on Twitter: @c_gonzalez

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