Transistor is a game that appears to be a master’s degree in art – stylish and extravagant, trying to be so very different than the rest. A sceptical person might ask: is there a game or is it just about looks? And one might answer: Yes – one heck of a game and also an adventure you will enjoy at least as much as the game’s official predecessor “Bastion”.
In Transistor you take the role of “Red” – a red-haired woman in a fancy-looking dress. You wake up next to a seemingly dead person close to you – alone, and without your voice – but at the same time accompanied by a green sword which comforts you in a soothing, but very sad voice. Who is the dead person lying in front of you? Did you kill him? And what is that weird hybrid of sword and USB-stick in your hand? The game does very little in explaining these questions at first, which is why you go on a perilous journey to find out against what and why you wield the Transistor in the first place.
Elevate your user level
Soon you find out about the Camerata, an organisation trying to hunt down the cities most famous celebrities, which is also why the protagonist Red lost her powerful voice. You learn that the Transistor is capable of stealing people’s best traits at the cost of their lives, transforming them into subroutines that allow you to perform special moves. Following the game’s eponymous topic all these abilities, places and enemies you encounter are flavored with programming jargon. You attack and stun enemies with abilities like Crash() or hide yourself with Mask(), you gain “User Levels” and access to functions (ability slots).With each fight you start to unlock your (and the Transistors) potential, slowly turning Red from a fragile woman into a real femme-fatale.
The combat in Transistor feels very similar to Bastion at first. You fight in an isometric perspective, using up to 4 different abilities in real-time. But the part where Transistor tells itself apart from Bastion starts with the planning mode. By pressing space at any time the game pauses, allowing you to plan every movement and attack without a hurry. Your resource is a timing bar at the top, which is partially consumed with each movement and attack you plan on doing. You get an (predicted) outcome for every one of your attacks and you are also able to undo every planned step that you don’t like. By pressing space Red executes the plan almost instantaneously while enemies move very slowly.
Planning mode is a very elegant and fluid feature at the same time. It allows for some tactical depth without being too intrusive or even slowing the game’s pace too much. While the timer bar for this mode takes some seconds to recharge you can still fight with some abilities, but mostly use the time to evade enemy fire.As being optional the planning-mode soon becomes a cornerstone in every fight, as enemies will also get upgrades over time that force you to fight with foresight and finesse rather than brute force.
Red can take only few hits before her life bar reaches 0, making her lose one of her “functions” for the remainder of the battle. If that happens you have to wait until you reach one of many well-placed access-points which also work as autosave-spots, upgrade and repair stations for your damaged abilities.
It’s all about routines
The access-points are also a part in Transistor where the real combat finesse starts. Each routine you gather over time can be combined with two others, depending on the amount of (sub)slots you unlocked for your actions so far. With up to 16 abilities to unlock you can imagine how many different combinations there are to personalize Red towards your own fighting style. The punishing mechanic of losing abilities for a certain time also forces you to switch defective routines with others, which is actually a good thing as this automatically teaches you on how the combinations work as you are forced to work with what you have at the moment.
Even with so many possible combinations available the balance of the game feels great. No ability feels over- or underpowered, as they are all balanced by the memory consumption (slot points) you can carry at a time as well as the runtime they consume during the planning mode. Even during the second play-through of the game (there is a new-game plus where you keep levels and abilities) I found myself steadily experimenting with this great system, still uncovering new ways to fight enemies more quickly and effectively.
And if you still don’t feel challenged enough you can unlock custom “Limiters” with each level, each increasing difficulty, amount and abilities of enemies while also providing a greater experience reward after you finish a battle. It’s a smart and very flexible system that keeps the challenge level just as high as want it. And speaking of a challenge: besides the normal game there is a hidden hub-world (fittingly called “backdoor”) that allows you to perform various timed or otherwise restricted challenges in exchange for special rewards and unlocks. The hub world in general is a great way to hone your skills and learn about the many possibilities of combined routines as each challenge usually enforces a special set on in order to reach a certain objective.
Follow the signals
Just in case you haven’t recognized it from the screenshots and text so far: The world of Transistor has quite a lot to offer. The city and Red herself vibrate in so many neon colors, images are oozing with character and detail in every stroke. And even while going away from usual graphical standards so audaciously the game always manages to retain its distinct personality without drifting into stylistic inconsistencies.
The mysterious story of Transistor is set in an intriguing world, but also feels a bit too rushed to allow for much depth in character development apart from the great voice acting and a few lines of written dialogue. It’s a short, but intensive experience that wants you to unravel details within the menus, small hints and the spread-out information booths you find throughout the game. Same like Bastion much of the initial charm of Transistor comes from how the story is told and how much you make out of the subtle little things being presented to you.
The great setting is accompanied by a great melodic / ballad / blues-oriented soundtrack that very smartly conveys you the feeling of what “Red” must have sounded as she still had her voice. Also very much like Bastion the Soundtrack of Transistor is nothing short of gorgeous and will follow you for long after you stopped playing the game. The only downside i found to this game is it’s shortness, only ranging around 3-5h of playtime depending on how skillfull you master the fights.