Hooked on Functions
A few years ago we were treated to a refreshing gem called Bastion . The maiden title for developer Supergiant Games stood out in the crowd thanks to unique storytelling, gorgeous visuals and polished gameplay. Fortune has smiled on us yet again with their equally stunning second endeavor, Transistor , which places us in an entirely different setting but showcases the same level of craftsmanship that makes it hard to pull yourself away from.
Not one to shy away from a climactic introduction, the opening sequence displays our heroine perched over the body of a man skewered with a blade unlike any seen before. Called the Transistor, this weapon fashioned from what appears to be a circuit board has its own consciousness and the ability to speak. As our protagonist, named Red, pulls the sword from the corpse, all we are left with are questions.
With Red’s ability to speak having been stripped, the voice of the Transistor provides the exposition. Yet unlike the omniscient narrator in Bastion retelling the story, the Transistor is blind to what the future holds, and accurately evokes anxiety for the unknown and pride towards his wielder. In fact, the relationship between Red and the Transistor is one of the most compelling elements of the game. It’s a shame then that Red is left without a voice, both literally and figuratively.
A respected vocalist prior to the opening tragedy, Red is profiled alongside other cultural icons and noted political administrators within the city of Cloudbank, an intriguing backdrop that is a marriage of science fiction and film noir. Yet Red stoically drags this bulky blade as it expounds its feelings, with only the barest of facial and body language acknowledgments as you stop to gaze upon various sites around the city. The only time her viewpoint is expressed through words is within the confines of a comments section accessed through computer terminals displaying news flashes. There are powerful moments when Red converses with the voice of the Transistor via these text boxes, but sadly they are few and far between. Instead, Red’s unflappable demeanor is what see as we move her from one battle to the next.
The combat system is where Transistor truly shines. Through discovery and leveling up you’ll acquire abilities called Functions. With varying effects such as ricocheting off of multiple enemies, exposing their weaknesses, or even briefly turning them against each other, these Functions can be installed in four action slots. The more Functions you obtain, the more you will appreciate how vast the system is. Each Function has an active ability, an upgrade ability, and a passive ability. Active abilities can be buffed with up to two upgrade Functions, and eventually you’ll have four passive slots at your disposal. Every Function has a different effect, both visually and statistically, when paired with another Function, and each new acquisition just begs to be experimented with. So where one Function allows you to quickly dash away from harm, upgrading it could leave a damaging trail, or spawn an illusionary clone to distract enemies. Functions can be swapped out at frequent save spots called Access Points, so you’ll never have to worry about being tied down to a particular loadout.
How you engage enemies is also an open affair, granting you the luxury of fighting in real time or using a turn-based system. The latter allows you to freeze the action, set movements and perform Functions, then hit the turn button again and watch your combinations lay waste to your foes. Both movement and Functions have costs that fill the turn bar, which itself requires a cooldown period before you are allowed to perform another turn. Most Functions remain inactive during this cooldown period, leaving you to find cover from enemy attacks, or exploit the Function combinations that can be used in between turns.
The progression and pacing in Transistor is flawless. Each encounter presents a new combination of enemies, mechanical creatures called Process. Some launch area of effect blasts from afar, others provide force fields and healing, and some hit hard and fast. Just when you think your skill in combat surpasses the level of the AI, a Process gets an update, boosting its health and granting new features such as concealing your screen during a turn or disrupting the turn altogether. Instead of selecting a difficulty in an options menu, you’ll acquire Limiters that can be installed to make battles tougher. You can compound as many Limiters as you like, giving the Process double damage, shorter respawn times, limiting the amount of Functions you can use and so on. Having Limiters active increases the experience you gain, providing not only more intense battles, but rewards for overcoming them.
Eventually you’ll uncover Backdoors, which lead you to an island sanctuary where you can kick back, relax, or test your skill against various challenges. Different challenge types include defeating a group of Process in a single turn, defeating them within a set time, withstanding an onslaught, or choosing the most effective Function combinations to clear the board. Apart from the experience gain, these challenges also unlock music tracks that can played on the music player located in your slice of paradise. Now, for most games this would be a throwaway reward, but in Transistor it is anything but. The soft, melancholic melodies are as serene as the waves crashing on your island. The new age blues fits the setting perfectly, and you can even have Red hum along in harmony (apparently she has only lost the ability to speak, but can still hum). You could easily overstay your vacation in the Backdoor, but it’s worth dimming the lights, putting your feet up, and enjoying the music.
Transistor is not without its share of bugs, though they were more minor inconvenience and some actually worked in my favor. In the Stability Test challenge, for example, I could easily keep enough distance from the Process that they wouldn’t pursue, allowing me to stand in place and watch the clock tick down to victory. I also found a way to exploit the action bar, unlocking both upgrade slots for a single active Function then shifting that slot, keeping my upgrades locked and having a fully open slot in its place. All the annoyances came from the menu screens. Dragging Functions into slots proved a task of precision where oftentimes the Function wouldn’t lock in place. There’s also no way to scroll through the Function information screens without exiting that Function completely and inspecting another one. Also, my first order of business every time I logged into the game was to change the settings, since they all reverted back to default every time I exited the game.
Like Bastion before it, Transistor is a lovingly crafted game by a dedicated and tight knit group of developers who strive not only to present us with a technically polished title, but one that keeps us interested throughout the entire journey. Though I personally would have liked more of a two-sided relationship between Red and the Transistor, I acknowledge the direction the designers were aiming for. Beyond that, the combat system is the most flexible and empowering I have seen in any game. Having dashed through the story in a mere seven hours, the New Game+ mode called Recursion allows me to keep my level and Functions intact, which is a good thing because there are still dozens of different combinations I’m eager to test out on the newly updated and tougher Process before me. At a bargain twenty dollars, Transistor is a refreshing and original adventure that every gamer should experience.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
It lacks the vibrant color palette of Bastion, opting for blues, greens, reds and plenty of whites associated with the cyber genre. The rigid geometry juxtaposes the splashes of curves nicely. 3.9 Control
Finding the right spot behind cover can be a tricky affair, but navigating some of the menu functions is even trickier. Otherwise, the action is smooth and responsive, with an easy control setup for both controller or mouse and keyboard. 4.7 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Brilliant music compositions and excellent voice work by Logan Cunningham makes Transistor a pleasure for the ears. I just wish our heroine wasn’t stripped of her voice. 4.5 Play Value
It’s a brief game, but only if you want it to be. Exploring ever alleyway, buffing the difficulty with Limiters, and enjoying the adventure again with Recursion mode can add plenty more hours of fun. 4.5 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend|
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid||2.5 – 2.9 = Average||3.5 – 3.9 = Good||4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy|
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor||3.0 – 3.4 = Fair||4.0 – 4.4 = Great||5.0 = The Best|