Red is the New Black
Transistor, the visually and aurally arresting follow up to Supergiant Games’ Bastion, is a perfect example of what an indie developer can do when not beholden to the whims of chairmen and stockholders. Transistor is a gorgeous, witty, emotionally resonant, and has one of the most unique and enticing combat systems we’ve played in years. Read on for our full review, and see why it trumps its predecessor in many ways. I played on the PS4 version, with a copy I purchased myself via the PSN.
You play as Red, a famous musician and singer, wielding a giant sword - Transistor - that speaks to you and loosely helps narrate the game (much like Bastion). The game begins with a rather dramatic visual of Red pulling Transistor from the corpse of a man, and the two beginning the journey to find out what’s going on in Cloudbank. There’s a lot more to the story, but since the narrative is a large part of the game and its hooks, I won’t spoil it here for you.
AESTHETICS - 10
There are very few games as beautiful as Transistor, both visually and in terms of audio. I am not kidding: I bought the OST on iTunes the day I first played the game because Darren Korb’s music and Ashley Barrett’s vocals as Red are that good. It’s been my working, walking, driving music all week. In terms of visual styling, Jen Zee’s art direction is absolutely astounding. The game uses a hand-drawn and painted style that evokes a cyberpunk and takes queues from games like Final Fantasy VII while retaining a flair that’s all its own. The enemies, and particularly Red and Transistor are wonderfully drawn and rendered. Everything in the UI is visually tied to the world of Cloudbank, and it’s because of this that the top-down perspective allows excellent immersion with the narrative. You may have a bird’s eye view, but you feel a part of the story every step of the way.
GAMEPLAY - 9
Transistor is a fairly linear Action RPG, but that’s not something I’m going to hold against it. There’s a story being told here, and its purpose is direct and to the point rather than filling your quest log up with a bunch of side missions. Red’s mission to get to the heart of the issues facing Cloudbank is punctuated with plenty of little narrative-filling goodies such as news terminals to elaborate the story, blog posts that you can leave comments on, and plenty of commentary from Transistor and interstitial cinematics to fill in the gaps. The true essence of Transistor’s gameplay comes in the form of combat, strategy, and building your own memory (skill deck) full of functions (skills) that suit your needs.
The basic gameplay loop is explore, search, combat - kind of like every action-RPG, only the mix of real-time and turn-based combat on hand in Transistor keeps things a lot more tactical than your usual button-mashing sword-swinging affairs. You can freely use your functions in real-time, or if you’d like you can plot out your moves with a quick pause of the action (R2), and you spend a sort of “energy bar” before pressing R2 again to watch the moves play out. Once done, you need to go on the defensive and take cover while Transistor recharges his energy, and then you can go back to plotting your next set of movies. This sort of duality led me to using real-time attacks on enemies that were lower health or had shields I needed to knock down, while tougher groups or bosses were attacked using carefully planned attacks.
Add in the fact that you have dozens of different variations you can mix and match the functions into, and that most enemies become “cells” when killed. As cells they’re placed on a counter, and unless you collect them like coins in Mario before the countdown ends, they respawn and must be fought again. This is a great mechanic, honestly, and one that makes every fight a careful mix of reflexes and planning. I couldn’t get enough of the fights in Transistor. I’m hoping other RPG studios take this approach too.
Combat, narrative exploration, and the linear path through the story are what Transistor’s all about. While the combat is fantastic, people looking for a more open-ended RPG will be disappointed.
INNOVATION - 9
There is nothing else quite like Transistor. Bastion shares similarities in narrative and art, but that’s about where the likeness ends. Supergiant’s second game is, much like the first, an experience all to itself and one that deserves to be played by any gamer: RPG fan or not. It does a lot new for the action-RPG, and very little of it is unwelcome. The combat system, the way music plays into the whole experience, and the way players experience the story through the game and not passively all make for a truly unique adventure.
POLISH - 10
There are no bugs in Transistor. Or at least, there aren’t any that seem to stick their heads up and say hello. The only complaint I can offer, and it’s one that cannot count against the category’s score, is that sometimes Red’s pathing during the planned attacks wouldn’t quite do what I expected. But given just how easy to pick up and play this game is, even with such a unique style of control, I’m willing to overlook this very small nuisance. It only ever was noticeable a few times at best.
LONGEVITY - 6 and VALUE - 8
This is where the game’s overall score takes a hit on our scale. At only 5-7 hours in length and with limited replay value, the game’s longevity score is only saved by the fact that the title only costs $20. That’s a decent value, even with the short campaign. Make no bones though, Transistor is a game you want to play.
My biggest wish is for more of this game, a sequel or some DLC, because I want to see this world continued, and I want to play the combat until my thumbs bleed. I’m disappointed in its short play-length, but it can’t be said enough that Transistor is a beautiful and unique RPG that every gamer should play. I can hardly wait to see what Supergiant will come up with next.
Bill Murphy / Bill Murphy is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.