Platform: Steam (PC), PlayStation 4 (reviewed)
Release Date: May 20, 2014
Hours Played: Not sure… 10 hours, maybe?
Best Part: How the art, writing, music, and combat come together so gracefully.
Reviewing a game with high expectations can be risky business.
No, I’m not talking about that Tom Cruise movie half of you probably haven’t even seen. I’m talking about how expectations can lead you to idealize a game, wanting more from it than you could ever possibly get. So when Transistor finally found its way to my PS4 after nearly a year of anticipation, I had my concerns.
Would it live up to its award-winning predecessor, Bastion? Would it even live up to it’s show-stopping E3 trailer? These were the questions I asked as I booted up Transistor for the first time.
If there’s one thing I know now that I didn’t before, it’s that Transistor developer Supergiant Games has matured since Bastion. The team has proven itself to be anything but a one-trick pony, and there’s no question about it: Transistor is awesome.
Transistor has you playing as a singer named “Red,” who is unwittingly endowed with a talking sword called “Transistor.” Obviously, there’s a lot more to it than that, but unraveling the mysteries of Red, Transistor, the Camerata, and Cloudbank is a big part of the experience; I’d rather not spoil it by talking about it here.
Transistor moves at a fairly steady pace, and the controls, while simple, take some time to pick up. Most of your abilities can be mapped to the X, Circle, Square, and Triangle buttons. You can also press R1 to “flourish,” triggering a flashy animation where Red spins Transistor in the air, leaping to recover him, while L1 makes Red hum a mournful melody to the tune of the game’s soundtrack (more about this later).
While it’s easy enough to fumble about the city of Cloudbank, it all feels a bit clumsy at first. Although you have Transistor’s quips and hints occasionally nudging you in the right direction, that’s really all you have. Everything else is self-taught – combat included.
I found Transistor‘s battle system to be quite brilliant. Although it borrows heavily from Bastion, it’s still unique. While you can rush around, mashing buttons to take out enemies in real time, you’ll have far greater success using the “Turn()” function, which pauses time, allowing you to plan a series of quick attacks to gain the upper hand on your foes – an army of unrelenting robots known as “the Process.”
As you defeat the Process, they leave behind “Cells,” which – if not collected quickly – evolve into more powerful foes. There’s definitely a risk/reward system in place, because each time you use Turn(), you have to wait for your attack bar to recover before you can act again. It reminds me of Parasite Eve in all the right ways, and is surprisingly deep, despite its simplicity.
I think this depth can be attributed in part to the well-developed enemies, along with the slew of upgrades and abilities available to Red and Transistor. While the enemy skins do little more than change color as you progress, new attack patterns and strategies rapidly come into play, forcing you to make the most of what you’ve learned up to that point in the story.
It’s mildly overwhelming at first, but you’ll eventually reach an epiphany where you realize which abilities best complement one another, giving you a powerful edge earned through experience. Like Red, you’re stepping into an unfamiliar situation with little knowledge of how the Transistor works – let alone what the Transistor is.
I didn’t notice any bugs or glitches during my first playthrough of Transistor, but crashed the game multiple times trying to get the Practice Test Trophies on my “Recursion” (or New Game+) run. Apparently, it couldn’t handle the damage I was doing on top of all the on-screen animations, so it crumbled. I think it had something to do with pairing the “Void” ability with functions that drain and deteriorate enemy health over time, but don’t quote me on that one.
Like Bastion, Transistor can be as challenging as you want it to be by setting “Limiters” that intentionally give the Process an advantage in battle (double damage, faster Cell respawns, etc.). The reward for your trouble is an experience boost gained at the end of each fight.
An unfortunate circumstance of Transistor‘s exclusive marriage to Steam and the PS4 is the lack of a Vita port. I’m a huge fan of the PS Vita, knowing months ago that Transistor would be the game to get me to really dig into Remote Play. The results? Well, they’re bittersweet.
Sure, Transistor runs decent enough using Remote Play, and – aside from a fairly consistent video stutter – looks great on the PS Vita. It’s the lack of customizable controls that really puts a damper on things. With R2 and L2 mapped to the rear touchpad, I found myself struggling to activate Turn() and coordinate my actions. Ultimately, I never got used to it, wishing I could re-map my buttons to a more responsive, more comfortable setting. Here’s hoping Supergiant patches in some control customization options in the near future, letting us swap L2 for L1 and R2 for R1.
Graphically, Transistor shines on the PS4. Sharp as a tack, it cruises at a smooth, flat frame rate (provided it wasn’t about to crash), looking marvelous at full 1080p. The colors are vibrant and intentional, fitting the sci-fi atmosphere like a tight leotard. Honestly, want to hang Transistor on my wall like a painting and stare at it while sipping glass of Chardonnay. I tip my hat to art director Jen Zee and her spectacular designs – they really tie the room together.
If the art and gameplay are the skin and bones, the writing is Transistor‘s bleeding heart, packed with great dialogue that hits you in all the right places. Not only is Transistor the narrator, but your tour guide, your friend, and just about everything else. It’s as though Transistor is haunted by a deep loneliness, one that’s ironically perpetuated by Transistor’s incessant deadpan jesting.
Likewise, Supergiant Games pulled a number of tricks to help perpetuate the illusion of immersion. By default, the DualShock 4 light bar flashes as Transistor speaks to you, which is super cool. However, you can also set his voice to play from the controller speaker. It’s a small feature, but I absolutely loved it, and it makes it way easier to hear what Transistor is saying.
As for the Transistor soundtrack, composer Darren Korb has truly outdone himself. A great soundtrack does more than add a bit of background music; it sets the tone, the mood, and the stage, filling in the gaps while hinting at what the player should think and feel. The forlorn melodies of Transistor are part of the package, and I couldn’t imagine having the same experience without them. Subtle touches, like Red’s vocal track kicking on during Turn(), show the love and attention that went into developing the music for this game.*
The voice acting is equally brilliant. Red’s voice is gorgeous, warming, and genuinely heartbreaking. Likewise, every word Transistor speaks is filled with such subtle personality, it’s impossible not to feel for him and his situation.
A Real Thing of Beauty – Buy It!
Transistor is a triumph and a true representation of what “next-gen” gaming is really all about. Not “having the most polygons” or “being up in the cloud,” but innovation, storytelling, and forging a bona fide emotional connection with the player.
While not without its flaws, Transistor is a dark delight from beginning to end. Smart, funny, and elegant, few games live up to my expectations – let alone surpass them. I had high hopes for Transistor, and despite it feeling a tad on the short side, nearly all of them were sated by the time I started my second run.
Truly a sum of its parts, Transistor‘s incredible art direction, mind-blowing music, powerful writing, and terrific battle system make for a complete package that’s easily worth your $20.
*Quick Note: The PlayStation Blog has a great post by Darren Korb about his experience composing the Transistor OST. You can read it right here. If you’re interested, you can also purchase the soundtrack on Amazon using the link to the left.