There are games that are meant to be played through, and then there are the rarer games that are designed to be experienced. Transistor, the follow-up game from the creators of Bastion, is definitely the latter. Between its amazing combat system, breathtaking music, and largely ambiguous story, it’s the kind of game that wraps you up and refuses to let go, even long after you’ve finished.
If you’ve played Bastion, you’ll notice several similarities right off the bat. For one, you start the game in a city on the brink of ruin. The absence of many living characters you’ll encounter is another similarity, as is the ubiquitous narrator, the game’s strong focus on music, and your ability to make enemies stronger in order to gain more experience from them. The city that the story takes place in can even shift and change like the one in Bastion, and the main character, Red, has lost her voice, rendering her as mute as “The Kid.” None of this is new, and while retreading old ground may initially seem like a tiring proposition, Transistor quickly proves to be a refreshingly refined and mature mixture of these elements.
Vagueness is your friend
However, unlike Bastion, which spelled out what was happening in no uncertain terms, Transistor leaves it up to you to figure out what’s happening to the city and its people. A large amount of the information required to piece together the puzzle is locked away in optional character dossiers and computer terminals, and you only ever unlock small pieces to the much larger whole.
As a result, the story is incredibly confusing at first and you’ll have no idea what you’re doing or why for the first several hours of the game, but it all comes together surprisingly well if you make an effort to piece everything together. On the other hand, those who need their games to explain everything clearly (and/or those who have no desire to unlock the character dossiers) will undoubtedly find the story to be impenetrable and pretentious.
Turn() mode is so, so good
While you start the game only knowing how to do a few simple attacks, you’ll quickly unlock new attacks and learn how to enter the turn-based Turn() mode, both of which make Transistor’s combat one of the best systems I’ve seen in at least a decade. Combat can be played in real-time and treated as an action game, but this isn’t really advisable in most situations due to the more complex strategies many enemies employ, which brings us to Turn() mode.
Basically, this mode freezes time and gives you the opportunity to chain together attacks in quick succession and position yourself advantageously. However, this can’t be overused because moving and attacking expends your Turn() bar, with different attacks eating up different amounts of this bar. Whatever amount you use out of said bar has to regenerate once you return to real-time combat, and this not only means having no access to Turn() mode for the few seconds it takes to regenerate, but also having no ability to attack. Turn() mode, then, is a calculated risk that can both allow you to do huge amounts of damage to an enemy and open you up to said enemy’s attack. The only thing separating those two outcomes is your planning and knowledge of how certain enemies tend to attack.
As you level up and move along in the story, you gain “Functions,” which are basically attacks. However, they’re not only attacks, because every attack in Transistor can also act as an upgrade or as a passive effect. For example, you gain a move that allows you to quickly dart from one place to another early on in the story. You don’t have to use it as such, though, and can instead apply it to one of your other attacks. While the move allows you to dart quickly across the screen when used as an attack, as an upgrade it confers the ability to use the attack it’s upgrading when Turn() is regenerating (which would ordinarily leave you totally defenseless and unable to attack at all).
Functions can also be used as passive effects with various effects ranging from health restoration to leaving explosives lying around periodically during combat, and each Function has a different effect depending on how it’s used. Even better, the effect Functions have when used as an upgrade to another attack will often change based on which attack you’re upgrading, so there are a staggering number of possible combinations to experiment with. A quick attack that turns enemies into allies for a short duration? This is possible. A slow attack that not only does damage over time to an enemy, but freezes that enemy for a short time as they’re taking damage? Also possible. A ranged attack that explodes, doing a huge amount of area damage? As if you have to ask.
Functions unlock character dossiers
As I mentioned earlier, there are character dossiers that reveal little slices of information about the world and what’s happening to the city. These aren’t unlocked by fulfilling some overly-complex criteria, but by using Functions. See, every Function has a character’s dossier inside of it in three parts, and you unlock these parts one-by-one by using said Function in all three roles (as an attack, as an upgrade, and as a passive effect) during combat. This not only allows many facets of the story to unfold at your own pace, but encourages you to experiment with various combinations over the course of the game. It’s a strange way of providing back story, for sure, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love the creativity.
I’m rarely a fan of checkpoint saves, and Transistor doesn’t even let you save your game manually, which should make it worse than most games using checkpoint saves. That having being said, the save system fits the game remarkably well. This is a game meant to be played straight through as evidenced by its single ending and the absence of a main menu (it goes immediately from the title screen into the game), so the checkpoint saves help reinforce this. Fortunately for those of you like me who save obsessively when given the opportunity, Transistor saves every time you find a terminal (used to change your Functions) or reach an area transition. You’re never far from either one, so you can exit the game at pretty much any point without having to worry that your progress will be lost.
You can also tab out of the game, find the save folder, and make archived backups as you play if you ever have the desire to return to certain points. I did this and it worked perfectly. It may be a little annoying that it’s necessary to window out of the game to preserve a save, but I’ve certainly played through games with worse checkpoint save systems. In the end, whether this is a non-issue or a huge problem will depend on your own personal line in the sand.
Death? Try overloaded Functions
Rather than drag down the game with endless health potions, Transistor simply gives you a life bar and tells you to go wild. Death isn’t the consequence of having that life bar reach zero, however; rather than killing Red immediately, the game “overloads” one of your equipped Functions, rendering it unusable until you’ve reached a new terminal (as in, one that you haven’t used yet). This effectively allows you to have as many “lives” as Functions you have equipped—which is up to four—though combat becomes much harder when you start to lose attacks. That being said, I only had a few of my attacks overload when I played through the game, so the difficulty is just about right, if a bit on the easy side.
Memory like an elephant
Naturally, the game has to limit your ability to use too many Functions at once, or else everyone would automatically use the strongest ones and neglect the lesser ones (no doubt losing out on character dossiers as a result). Enter “Memory,” an artificial cap that limits how many you can have installed. Stronger Functions require more Memory to use while the weaker ones use little Memory at all, so you’re constantly juggling your Memory cap with the attacks you want to use (and the dossiers you’re trying to unlock). Memory can be upgraded to allow for more Functions during certain level ups, and I found that doing so allowed me to avoid it ever feeling overly restrictive. Even more interesting is the fact that you can forgo having all four attack Functions equipped, instead relying on two or three powerful ones. While this helps you get around the Memory limitation, it also gives you fewer “lives” to fall back on if you lose all of your health in combat.
All things in balance
This is Transistor’s greatest success—everything is perfectly balanced, with every advantage you’re afforded coming with an equal flaw. Combat comes down to one big game of risk versus reward, and you can either play it safe or live dangerously. Neither is a wrong choice, and that’s what makes combat so good; not only is it a flawless mixture of real-time and turn-based combat, but there are no wrong options despite the virtually endless number of ways you can play.
There aren’t a million different kinds of enemies in this game, but the few types that you’ll be fighting receive upgrades the farther you go. Because of this, combat late in the game is at once familiar and completely foreign as it forces you to adapt to enemies’ new capabilities and strategies. This keeps combat from ever feeling same-y despite the fact that you’ll be going up against the same types of enemies for most of the game. Also helping combat remain fresh are the large differences between different kinds of enemies. One enemy type may disappear and reappear somewhere else once hit, while others are more likely to cloak themselves. Others shield each other, and there’s even a “smash indiscriminately” type of enemy. Each kind of enemy requires a different strategy, so there’s enough variance to keep things from ever becoming monotonous.
Now for the negatives
Transistor is a great game that I loved, but I’m not so delusional that I can’t see its flaws. For one, an early game section requires using Turn() mode to hit two switches at the same time. This seems to hint at occasional puzzles that are waiting deeper in the game, but sadly, this kind of thing is never used again. The game is also quite short, weighing in around 6-8 hours and with little replay value aside from “recursion mode,” which is basically New Game + with stronger enemies and one or two small dialogue changes.
Then you have the fact that the game is entirely linear; while I love linear games, your frequent inability to go back a screen once you’ve entered a door can be maddening because it’s not always obvious where the optional content is. As a result, you can sometimes lock yourself out of little bits of information while just looking around. Lastly, the narration can occasionally get a bit strange. Part of this is because the narrator is talking to Red instead of you, and the two have a shared history. Still, even taking that shared history into account, he occasionally says things that are cringe-worthy because of how clingy and obsessed they sound. I would have appreciated a little more restraint and subtlety in the narration.
It’s a very stylized game
If you liked the art style in Bastion, then Transistor will undoubtedly be right up your alley. That’s not to say that they’re identical, of course; Bastion was far more colorful, and while Transistor certainly uses color effectively, it’s far more subdued and deliberate than the rainbow blast that was Bastion. Rather than throwing every color at you at once, Transistor often focuses on one main color at a time in order to build mood. I think I prefer this approach.
Everything in the game is highly stylized, from the periodic cutscenes to the art during gameplay, and it confers a futuristic, otherworldly vibe to the setting. Another thing I liked is how much more mature and serious the character art is. While Bastion was a bit of a fairy tale and had an exaggerated character design to match, Transistor’s characters are designed to be closer to reality, mirroring the kind of thing you’d see in a futuristic anime like Cowboy Bebop or Ghost in the Shell. This adds a certain gravitas to the setting and story.
From beginning to end, you’ll be amazed by Transistor’s soundtrack. Both the vocal pieces and the background music are sublime, the music pulling out all the stops to add atmosphere and complement the story perfectly. The soundtrack has quite a bit of range, as well, seeming to mix elements of jazz, trip-hop, and electronic in varying degrees. The whole thing fits the game like a glove and blows Bastion’s (and most games’) music away in terms of sheer quality:
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