Transistor, from Supergiant Games, is exactly what I’ve been waiting for. A fun, emotionally compelling action-RPG with a female protagonist, Transistor impressed me with its beautiful graphics and unconventional gameplay.
Transistor grabs you right from the start, dropping the player into a scene where a mute woman pulls a massive talking sword out of the limp body of a man.
“Hey, Red… we’re not gonna get away with this are we?”
I was immediately hooked by the voice of the sword, called the Transistor. Logan Cunningham, who also narrated Supergiant’s last game Bastion, brings emotional depth for two—Red has lost her voice by the time the game begins, and the Transistor functions as both a narrator and a companion.
Despite being, you know, a sword, the Transistor is thoroughly infused with humanity by Cunningham. His emotions are heartfelt, and he is equally at ease in the game’s humorous moments. I came away from the game hoping that Cunningham goes into narrating audio books so that he can read me to sleep at night.
Together Red and the Transistor fight their way through the eerily abandoned city of Cloudbank on the trail of a group called the Camerata. The Camerata are responsible for the existence of the malevolent robots called the Process. They also hold the key to the mystery of the Transistor’s existence and the loss of Red’s voice.
I don’t want to say much more about Transistor’s story, but there isn’t much to spoil. Rather than uncovering big mysteries, Transistor reveals small details quietly. We learn about secondary characters from text buried in the game’s menu, and revelations about past events are dropped casually in conversation by miserable villains who are at their wit’s end.
Ultimately it’s the relationship between Red and the Transistor that carries the story. The events that brought Cloudbank to its current state are an interesting mystery, but it’s the connection between these two characters who rely on each other utterly that makes the game poignant.
Transistor is punctuated with frequent fights with the Process, using one of the most interesting combat systems I’ve encountered.
Red can “install” up to four main moves—called functions—on the Transistor at any time. These functions can be modified by installing other functions as add-ons.
For example, the Load function creates a packet that will explode and injure surrounding enemies. Installing Load as an add-on to a different function, however, has the advantage of making the other function do more damage. It’s incredibly fun to mix and match different functions and see what the effects are.
The near-limitless combinations make Transistor accessible to all styles of play. It even helped me branch out a bit. Usually I prefer a high-damage style of play—I’m by no means a strategist and prefer to go in guns-blazing. Transistor gave me lots of opportunities to experiment with functions that encouraged stealth or more planning than usual. Because I was able to trade them out frequently, I never felt pressured to play in a certain way.
Transistor combines real-time and turn-based fighting, another departure from the norm. Red can either attack normally or pause time and take a “turn.” In the turn, you have all the time you need to plan out your moves—but every one comes with a planning cost, so you can only line up so many at a time. I found I could usually select about four big functions in a turn. Moving took up quite a chunk of my options, but there are certain functions (like Jaunt) that allow you to move quickly and use less of your allotted planning cost.
I enjoyed spending time in turn mode, planning out possible actions and then starting over to see which of my ideas would be the most effective. It adds a great strategic element to the game. Once out of her turn, Red quickly executes the actions you chose, before the enemy can move. Then there’s a brief cooldown period before you can use the turn ability again.
This all sounds a little complicated, but it was simple once I got the hang of it. The trick is, the game throws you into combat very quickly, and there’s virtually nothing by way of a tutorial. It took me quite a while to figure out how to install functions on the Transistor and how the add-ons worked. There was a chunk of time towards the beginning when I was playing with only two functions because I hadn’t realized that I could install more.
I’m chalking this one up to my own ineptitude as much as the lack of instructions. Once I figured out how everything worked, the gameplay opened up completely, while still maintaining a lot of depth. I also felt the penalties for playing badly were fair.
When you run out of health the game throws you into “emergency turn” mode; even if your turn isn’t recharged, you get a chance to make a move. The consequence is that you start losing functions. The functions will become available again within a couple of savepoints, but since you can’t switch them out mid-battle it forces you to think on your feet and make do with limited moves. If you lose all your functions, you will eventually die and have to start the battle over again.
I really enjoyed this method of penalization. For one, it forced me to try out new functions after I lost my favorites. It also encouraged creative thinking. The few times I did have to start a battle over, I would always try different functions based on what I had learned about my enemies. This kept repeating things fresh and exciting.
This game is undeniably gorgeous. The settings are lush and colorful, and the character design is just plain lovely. A lot of cyberpunk art can be stark and technological, but even the technology in Transistor feels alive and vibrant. I would love to explore more of Cloudbank.
Games that do this many things right are hard to come by. Transistor is a wonderful choice for teens and their parents. Its issues of technological domination are easily applicable to the real world, and the interactions between Red and the Transistor are wonderfully bittersweet.
The game also has great replay value; finishing it allows you to go through the main quest again, keeping all your unlocked functions. It’s more challenging but just as fun as it was the first time. Transistor is the kind of game whose mythos sticks in your head. You’ll want to come back to it over and over again.
You can find Transistor on Steam, and it is also available for the PS4.