This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of Transistor.
What does reality mean in an increasingly digital and virtual world? Transistor asks this question with a fully realized combination of isometric cel-shaded animation, gorgeous neo-soul songs and a noir sensibility that looks and feels like an arthouse European graphic novel translated into interactive entertainment.
Transistor introduces us to Red, a protagonist with a combination of femme fatale looks and a mysterious past that is slowly unwrapped for the gamer through the progression of the game. The titular enormous talking broadsword that is the Transistor immediately joins you on your journey to uncover the destruction of Cloudbank as both a city and a society, once rich with a joie de vivre as a fantastical futuristic city and now overrun with the corruptive effect of a contagion known only as the Process. Without spoiling a story that is comprised of quick but sharp moments of big revelations and emotionally wrought decisions, the plot by Greg Kasavin progresses in a manner that indicates a deliberate narrative design intended to keep the story moving at the same pace and wavelength as the visuals and audio around it.
The world that Red traverses in her search for answers both personal and global has one of the sharpest, most vivid fantasy aesthetics to debut in a very long time. Transistor has the razor sharp edges, glowing neon colours and sweeping digital landscapes of other digital worlds such as Tron: Uprising, but adds touches carried over from Bastion in brief pockets of analog reality such as a break to eat at a popular local hotspot or a nostalgic look at Red’s singing career at her old haunt before the Process took over. The game slides smoothly from section to section with only a few hiccups in large combat sequences, where the multitudes of enemies such as robotic stalkers and hovering juggernaut brawlers with concussive explosion shields rush towards your protagonist with patterns that are often challenging but fair at the default difficulty.
The main combat system of Transistor is based on the concept of functions, individually usable and also stackable player elements that provide a variety of abilities from melee and ranged attacks to movement boosts, invisibility, healing and more. There are a myriad of permutations from selecting which functions to allocate per button to thousands of possible combinations to boost functions, further boosted by the duplication of functions later on to amplify favoured abilities: I got a tremendous satisfaction after figuring out that a Cull() attack with Tap() and Get() functions attached was best suited to my up close, splash damage attack style but there’s really no bad choices when it comes to tailoring your preferred combat, mobility and stealth options. These can all be utilized with the ability to sporadically pause and pre-plan out your attacks with a finite amount of usage points, allowing you to queue up sequences of damage and/or escape with a precision that adds a lot of versatility to Red’s abilities. The sporadic challenges in (not so) hidden Backdoor areas also allow you to tune up and adjust your combat load out, and sharpen your game mechanics for improvements that definitely come in handy if you choose to Recurse (or New Game Plus) through the story again at a higher difficulty.
In a game that boasts tremendous production value and gorgeous design as core tenets of its foundation, the most impressive aspect of Transistor may very well be a full soundtrack by Darren Korb. In partnership with singer Ashley Barrett, they create a digital neo-soul experience that adds depth and inspires emotional investment in Red and her adventures with the Transistor. Each pivotal emotional moment and major boss encounter has its own song, along with a suite of other pieces that ebb and flow around your journey through Cloudbank. The soundtrack does contain some spoiler-esque moments, but the breathtaking live performance from PAX Prime 2013 from before the game’s launch is a strong example of the distinctive soundscape that shines throughout the game.
I’ve sat on this review for a long time to let my surge of subjective fandom and enthusiasm for the particular aesthetic and sensibility behind Supergiant Games to settle down…and now that it has, I still think Transistor is fantastic. From the constant progression in unlocking new functions and slots to the compelling (if admittedly very brief) looks at the archetypal supporting characters and villains in and around the city of Cloudbank, Transistor has a precision of design and gorgeous, lush production values that firmly establishes it as a beautiful and intensely personal experience.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars