[21 May 2014]
I completed Transistor after two sittings, the entire time waiting for the game to reveal itself. Decoding the cryptic storyline and what ties the world together hovers tenuously out of reach throughout, so piecing this puzzle together becomes the engine that drives the game. But such a construct is a risky proposition; if it falls flat at the climax, the world and plot feel haphazard rather than nuanced. After the credits roll, Transistor lands somewhere between the two.
Transistor comes as Supergiant Games’s second release, following 2011’s masterpiece Bastion. Returning are the latter’s groundbreaking narration as well as the 3/4 camera angle and battle arenas. But with a change in protagonist and fighting mechanics, only some of these design features land with the same effect, which is to be expected when Bastion was heralded for being unique and innovative.
Playing as famed singer Red in the city of Cloudbank, the game opens with the Transistor—the sword-like weapon you use throughout the game—impaled on an unnamed man. The weapon, as you quickly learn, can be used to consume the souls of Cloudbank citizens, and the voice emanating quietly from it is that of the dead man. The Transistor’s monologue, environmental clues, and government-run OVC Terminals work to explain the basic foundation of the story; an illuminati-like group named the Camerata attacked Red, losing the Transistor in the process and unleashing a robotic plague called the Process on the city.
If all of that sounds needlessly convoluted for a 10-hour game, you would be right. The primary antagonist is rarely understood, and the amount of plot holes that go unfilled at the game’s conclusion point to a development team in search of a story to match its gameplay. Transistor’s plot isn’t confusing because of its complexity as, for example, 2013’s Bioshock Infinite was. It’s confusing because it was poorly conceived.
The fighting, though problematic, is at least structured to be indicative of the plot. Battles can be fought in real-time, but most attacks take prohibitively long to cast. In their stead, the game features a turn-based system, which enables a stop-time sequence, allowing you to plan and cast actions. Every action takes a predetermined amount of time, the management of which becomes a strategic juggling act mid-battle. The Transistor was developed to control the Process, so its ability to stop time and inflict significant damage is at least thematically coherent.
However, the implementation of this system nearly ruins the gameplay. The use of the stop-time process requires a cooldown period in which you can neither use the system again nor cast any attacks. Battles turn into an eye for an eye affair which flips intermittently between the planning and execution of your attacks followed by approximately 10 seconds of running around with your hair on fire trying not to take damage.
All of which is to say you will take damage and you will “die”. Transistor’s greatest gameplay accomplishment comes from its inventory management system, an unglamorous claim to fame. Every ability has a primary, secondary, and passive effect, only one of which is in use depending on how the ability is equipped. With four primary and potentially eight secondary and passive ability slots, there are countless ways to customize your battle loadout. The challenge is that each ability has an equip cost between one and four units of which, you only begin with 16 to spend, so as you collect more abilities, you must manage your equip costs with an optimal loadout. When you die during battle, one of your primary abilities becomes inactive until you reach multiple save points further in the game. This forces players to experiment with new loadouts and approaches to battles.
The art direction remains the game’s real draw. From the angular, neon architecture to the occasional 2D cutscenes, many of Transistor’s most important moments are punctuated eloquently with dramatic artistic flare. Even the enemy and boss design puts the art on display, turning an army of robotic creatures into fluid, ornate animatronics.
Transistor will never escape its status as Bastion‘s little brother, not least of all because of its narration style. In the realm of indie games, Supergiant’s debut remains capital-I Important. Attempting to copy-and-paste what made Bastion powerful misses the point behind its influence and presents new complications. For example, the narration in Transistor takes on an unsettling male gaze as the protagonist is a not-so-subtle sex symbol in Cloudbank being guided and empowered by a disembodied male voice. And yet through it all, it remains a captivating play. Perhaps it’s the need to uncover the secrets of the universe or the ever changing battle sequences, which rarely feature the same lineup of enemies, but Transistor demands to be finished and revisited.