One of my personal favourite games is Bastion, the previous title by SuperGiant Games, the developer of Transistor. Bastion had an incredible art style, a clever story telling mechanic and really fun gameplay; every single moment inside of Bastion was incredible. My hopes and expectations for Transistor were incredibly high, and I was wishing that SuperGiant Games would be able to deliver on the potential of this game. It is easy to compare the two games, because they are similar in more ways than they are different, but they are different enough to give Transistor its own unique identity and allows it to separate itself from Bastion.
Unlike Bastion, Transistor is an incredibly linear game. There is no central hub that allows you to choose your next objective, or level, and no recurring location to indicate your progression through the narrative. The player is on a march from the beginning to end, with very few opportunities to explore the world. This is interrupted only by the many enemy encounters that have been put in-between you and there. Instead of optional challenges being accessible from the hub, in Transistor they are available at select locations in the normal progression. While walking through the urban environments a portal will be available that will transport you to a beach with crystal clear waters and a sunset in the background, where all of the optional content can be accessed. Everything important in this room is located inside of doors on various branches of a tall tree growing out of the sandy shore. This location serves no purpose other than to deliver the challenges to you when the game feels that you are ready for them.
All of the visuals in Transistor are incredible; the environments are gorgeous and incredibly detailed. It is easy to see that a lot of attention and care went into every single area. The design of the landscapes and buildings are clever and yet not so far-fetched that it becomes absurd. Unfortunately, the isometric perspective does not properly convey the scale of the city that you are supposed to be exploring. Everything seems that much smaller when you have a bird’s eye perspective. Players of Bastion will have their expectations played with, by the visuals, near the conclusion of Transistor. While traveling back through previous environments, the incredibly detailed scenery will start to destabilize and erase before you. This is the exact opposite effect of the primary visual gimmick that was included in Bastion. Character animations are incredibly smooth and while playing the game nothing ever seems like it is out-of-place or looks like it does not belong.
Darren Korb, the composer of Bastion’s soundtrack, returns to compose the soundtrack for Transistor and it does not disappoint. The music in Transistor, like Bastion, is probably one of the main attractions of the game and I can only give it praise. It enhances the atmosphere that is put into place by the visuals, and gives a unique identity for all of the different types of locations that you will visit while playing this game.
The levels and playable areas in Transistor are designed like a series of arenas connected to each other through a series of hallways. You will frequently find yourself walking through a narrow corridor and then the map will expand; enemies and cover will materialize indicating that you left a hallway and entered an arena. Once the battle has been completed, you will be funneled back into another narrow corridor to continue in the direction that you were going. With very few exceptions, I never found any branching paths that I was able to take. The restrictive level design is in service of keeping the story and narrative on a very tight schedule, making sure that the right amount of information is provided to the player at just the right spots. This keeps the story a mystery and makes you want to move forward to see what happens next.
I never found myself asking too many questions about the story, or the events of the game, but I sometimes found myself not being completely satisfied with this. The motivations of the characters seem flimsy at best, and the resulting actions may not be believable to some. The plot seems to focus on the main character, a popular singer named Red. She embarks on a revenge quest against a group that attacked her, causing her to lose her voice. Red is saved by the narrator of the game, who is never properly identified to the player, who leaps in front of her when she is about to be struck by the Transistor, a giant sword and the titular object of this game.
The narrator is absorbed into the sword and is somehow able to speak to you through it for the rest of the game. The sword, being one of the only speaking characters in the game, then functions as the primary mechanism for storytelling in Transistor. The way the story is told is extremely similar to the method that is used in Bastion; however, the key difference is that the narrator of Bastion was dictating events that had already occurred, while the narrator in Transistor is an active participant in the events of the story as they happen around you.
This change of perspective leads to the primary speaking character speculating about the events of the story as they happen. In Bastion, the narrator already knows all the facts and is telling them to you as required. This change in perspective enhances the mystery of the game and allows the player to learn the truth at the same time as the characters. Some gamers may like this narrative style, but I found it irritating due to my preconceived notion that a narrator should already know everything that is happening and should not be guessing about the events of a story. This can potentially lead the player away from the intended conclusion resulting in disappointment.
What Transistor lacks in proper motivation for the characters, it makes up with world building. Transistor is able to give the player volumes of information about the world it is presenting to you without a single exposition dump. Public Access Terminals, located throughout the world, allow you to vote on what colour the sky should be, what the weather should be like for the day, or provide you with a news broadcast about other events of the world. Every single item that is able to be interacted with has a counter next to it to show you the number of people who have done the exact same thing as you that day. These small touches give you a window into the daily life of a citizen of the world in Transistor.
The biggest difference between Transistor and Bastion, by far, is the combat. While both are two-dimensional games, with an isometric perspective and role-playing game elements, Bastion is a lot faster paced, focusing more on the action and testing your reflexes. Transistor is much slower paced with a greater emphasis on strategy, experimentation, and creative problem solving skills.
The combat in this game really reminded me of the combat mechanic that was used in Parasite Eve, for the Sony Playstation, a hybrid of real-time and turn based combat. Combat is split up into two phases, one for offensive and one for defensive. While in the offensive mode, the enemies on the screen will freeze and you will be able to plan your attack for maximum effectiveness. Once your attack has been planned, it will execute and you can see if your crafted attack pattern has been successful. In the defensive phase, you simply run away and avoid your enemies, in real-time, until your stamina has returned and you are able to attack again.
The experimentation element in this combat system comes from the ability to combine your skills, called functions. Functions can be inserted into active and passive slots. The active slots are the skills that you will actually be able to use in battle, and the passive slots will provide you with enhancements or stat boots. On top of your active and passive slots, each active slot has two passive slots of its own allowing for further customization of the functions that you want to use in battle. This system has lots of depth and greatly rewards experimentation.
Do not play Transistor expecting to fight bosses that dwarf the player in size, or provide additional challenges above the normal combat, because they simply do not exist. There is only one boss fight that would be able to loosely meet this description and I did not find it to be any more challenging than the normal combat.
Transistor is not a game without flaws, some of which can be severe, and it is different in some key areas of gameplay from Bastion; but change is not always bad and Transistor presents enough new ideas and experiments with the foundation, presented in Bastion, in some really interesting ways. I appreciate that Transistor has its own unique identity and is not simply another Bastion. I enthusiastically recommend Transistor and hope that SuperGiant Games keeps up the good work.