Platform: PC (reviewed) | PS4
Developer: Supergiant Games
"But is it better than Bastion?" The Big Question looms large over Transistor even though it's total nonsense: the two games couldn't be more different if they tried.
That said, the superficial similarities are overwhelming. My most anticipated game of 2014 is another tightly-paced isometric action RPG that throws cyberpunk singer Red and her friend-turned-superweapon into arena battles against a menacing digital army. Supergiant once again bring Logan Cunningham's honey-voiced narration, sumptuous art direction and superb sound design to bear with ruthless efficiency, creating the achingly gorgeous yet haunting world of Cloudbank around us and spinning a fascinating yarn as it does so.
But whereas Bastion was built around reflexes and powerful emotions, Transistor is cool as a cucumber: a slick, stylish and tactical experience that rewards using your head, not your heart. Victory comes down to forward planning and perfect execution, taking full advantage of a dizzying range of versatile abilities and a game-changing combat mechanic that blends strategic turn-based action with visceral swordplay.
All is not well in Cloudbank. This impossible futuristic city in the sky is under siege from The Process, a mysterious horde of digital foes who infest the streets and put the inhabitants to flight. A crisper and more austere place than Bastion's fantastical setting, the soulful neon-edged metropolis is packed with detail and brought to life with exquisite artwork, evoking the same feelings of isolation and preternatural wrongness as Rapture: a once-bustling place who's soul -- its people -- are gone or worse.
Into the enigma steps Red, a radical singer without a voice on a mission to... well, to say more would be telling and we do so hate spoilers here at Dealspwn.com. Suffice to say that the stakes are high and we can infer some profound truths throughout the adventure, while enjoying time spent in the lonely yet lovely environment.
Red does have one friend, mind, who we meet mere seconds into the game. An enormous sword, the titular Transistor, protrudes from the lifeless body of an unnamed man. You'll pick it up and quickly realise that it's imbued with none other than the inestimable Logan Cunningham, who acts as both the narrator, main weapon, companion and master of all exposition. He comments on everything and everyone, acting as your voice and Supergiant's own, dynamically describing the on-screen action and constantly hinting at the backstory behind the current state of affairs.
Red and Logan aren't alone in Cloudbank, however. The Process are relentless and hound us without mercy, locking Red into frequent arena engagements against increasingly tough varieties of mechanical foes. Combat initially feels slick and simplistic as the singer-turned-swordsman bludgeons through slow-moving drones and melee bruisers with four attacks mapped to the controller face buttons (do use a controller, PC players), but as upgraded enemies start to heal one another, blast you from range, blink around the environment and attack from all angles, you'll quickly realise that Red is a very different kind of hack & slash protagonist.
She's fragile and sluggish; weighed down by her heavy companion like a millstone. Lengthy attack animations leave her open to punishment while her health won't hold up to sustained assaults. We therefore have to use our brains as well as Red's wonderful sword, which boasts two fabulously unique abilities.
The first transforms real-time action into turn-based action by effectively stopping time and letting us queue up a selection of movements and attacks in advance. Turn() is our ace in the hole as we use it to move behind foes, carefully aim some combos and attacks for maximum effect, then relocate behind cover and then hit execute: watching the end result in hyperspeed.
Equally useful to react to dangerous threats or push the advantage yourself, it's exceptionally powerful and acts as an oasis of tactical calm in the midst of a hectic battle: putting us in full control with all the metrics we need and all the time in the world. However, a lengthy cooldown period leaves Red vulnerable and unable to attack, thus encouraging us to wait for the perfect moment and seize the opportunity.
It's a sensationally deep and rewarding foundation for cool, slick and engaging combat, further enhanced by a truly brilliant skill system. Finding 'Processed' citizens or gaining levels continually adds more active abilities and attacks to the pool, all of whom are characters in their own right with unlockable text backstories. On a basic level, we''ll soon amass a huge number of situational attacks to map to the four face buttons, not limited to debilitating melee bashes, ranged blasts, projectiles, AoE, DoTs, summons, status effects, deployable explosives, controls and allegiance-changing glitches. Every skill has its role and niche, serving your playstyle and affording new opportunities when cleverly combined in Turn().
You'd think that was the clever bit. It isn't.
Here's the clever bit. Though you can only equip four active skills, all abilities can be used to modify one another -- or Red herself -- in outrageously different ways when equipped into an upgrade or passive slot. A ranged blast might make other skills more efficient to use in Turn(), or grant more Turn() time if slotted as a passive. A friendly robotic dog offers unique combat opportunities, but could equally grant a 25% chance to turn Red into a floating murder goddess at regular intervals.
Explosives can enhance blast radii or confer damage mitigation, charm spells lend their affliction to other attacks and cluster munitions split up familiar skills into new forms. We have the freedom to experiment with totally new builds on a regular basis, constantly changing and evolving our strategy and agonising over which four actives to equip.
Gaining new levels doesn't make Red more powerful. She instead becomes more versatile and capable of more intricate nuanced builds. Combined with the Turn() system, it lends Transistor a cerebral, smart and calculating personality of its own, rewarding clever forward planning and making every battle feel totally different. Though admittedly you'll spend a lot of time tinkering away in a menu that's not quite as streamlined as it ought to be.
Transistor's attitude towards challenges, death and endgame content seal the deal. Though somewhat derivative, a selection of challenge rooms encourage us to think about oour skills in new ways, taking knowledge (and extra XP) back into the campaign proper. Hitting 0HP doesn't kill Red, rather a random ability is disabled for a protracted length of time, challenging us to temporarily replace it with new builds that we might actually prefer. And then the infinitely replayable Recursion mode turns repeat playthroughs into new playthroughs by remixing enemy waves and presenting completely different obstacles to overcome. Comfort zone? What comfort zone? You'll never find one as the combat continually keeps you guessing in all the best ways.
Something bugged me, though. Throughout my first run, I couldn't shake a nagging doubt at the back of my mind and decided to delay the review until I could put my finger on exactly what it was. And then it hit me: I just wasn't feeling it.
To explain, Bastion's major strength was its simplicity; its big powerful themes of loneliness, love, despair and hope that could be conveyed wordlessly in the main. Conversely, Transistor's story and themes are more complex, sometimes abstract and allegorical, while the delivery is muted and stodgy. Much of the story is unimaginately dumped via prosaic po-faced conversations or reams of text, with even Cunningham sounding oddly subdued. Did they anaesthetise him?
As such, Transistor just doesn't hit anywhere near as hard on an emotional level. I found myself unable to care as deeply about the characters or wracked with the intense emotions I so often felt while playing its predecessor. Bastion's endings nearly made me cry. Transistor's ending made me impatient to skip to the next playthrough.
Which brings us full circle, of course, since Transistor isn't Bastion. It's smart, confident and cerebral, fleshing out its world by encouraging you to explore and think as opposed to gut feeling. You'll search out thought-provoking terminals down dark alleyways, hungrily devouring and digesting every nugget of information it provides in menus and narration. Little details help bond you with Red, too, from accelerating a motorbike during story scenes or flicking the sticks to start singing to a rapturous crowd. Small touches, but perfectly implemented.
The story is ultimately worth telling and Cloudbank is fascinating, but more to the point, Transistor's sensational combat would have been more than enough to cement a purchase by itself.
- Gloriously smart and strategic combat thanks to Turn()
- Versatile, deep and deeply impressive skill and levelling system
- Achingly stylish, from art design to soundtrack
- Recursive and replayable; cool and self-assured personality
- Complex storyline lacks emotional impact...
- ...and suffers from subdued, occasionally stodgy delivery
- Upgrade menu could be more streamlined
The Short Version: Transistor is masterful. You'll come for the astonishing art direction and thoughtful storyline, but stay for the sensational combat that continually offers new opportunities and challenges long after your first playthrough comes to an end.
It aims for the head, not the heart, and hits home in spectacular fashion. Beauty and brains in one smart razor-sharp package.