TBT REVIEW: Transistor

Thursday, November 1st, 2018

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Transistor | Boxart
Title Transistor
Developer Supergiant Games
Publisher Supergiant Games
Original Release Date May 20, 2014
Genre Action
Platform PC, PS4, iOS, Switch,
Age Rating Teen

From the time of its debut till now and doubtlessly far into the future, Transistor will remain one of the deepest and most satisfying gaming experiences ever produced. A bold statement, yes, but wholly deserved. This game is the preeminent example of hidden gem and, fortunately, it’s not so hidden, enjoying lasting popularity and a robust following that will rival other longstanding classics. A fantastic story, powerful characters, innovative gameplay, and unsurpassed style, Transistor is the pinnacle of gaming art. For those that have yet to play this aesthetic and narrative masterpiece, it is my pleasure to introduce to you one of my all-time personal favorites.

Transistor takes place in Cloudbank, a city where reality and virtual have merged. Integrating digital concepts, such as design, rendering, and customization, the world around them can be built and shaped however the population pleases. Every citizen has the ability to vote on anything, from how a space should be used, to how blocks should be renovated, to what kind of weather the day should have. With this system, there will always be debate and disagreement, yet Cloudbank has enjoyed a stable, peaceful existence. However, a certain group of powerful individuals, called The Camerata, are hell-bent on obtaining perfection, convincing themselves that they know what a true utopia should be and how to obtain it, so much so that they are willing to forge it themselves. Using the Transistor, they can control The Process, the means to dismantle and reshape the world. The Transistor can also obtain Trace Data, a person’s character, skills, personality; their very being, and use it for their ultimate purpose. Willing to murder for this Trace Data, they target high profile individuals with the power to influence the population. One of these desired individuals is Red, a prominent singer who possesses a strong following and whose music can strongly inspire others. When the Camerata target her, their plans take a turn, as they lose the Transistor to her. Red is determined to confront The Camerata, discovering true intents and revealing unthinkable consequences throughout her ordeal.

Transistor | Red

The story of Transistor is fantastic, weaving together several layers of narrative and achieving a depth that keeps you immersed until the very end. The story revolves around Red, a victim of The Camerata, and her nameless boyfriend, who serves as our narrator. In the beginning, Red and her boyfriend are attacked, she having her voice stolen and her boyfriend having his Trace Data, his entire being, integrate with the Transistor. Now just a voice himself, he and Red seek out the people who ruined their lives. However, what initially starts out as a crusade between two individuals attempting to undo the damage done to them, quickly escalates into something far more dire. The Process, which the Camerata are using to reshape the city, continues to gain strength, spreading and attacking everything in its path, including the citizens themselves. Chaos ensues, leaving everyone in confusion and plunging the city into further disarray. The mystery of why The Camerata would go to such extremes is also slowly unraveled, conveying individual motives and conflicts. All of this comes together to give players a multitude of different angles, revealing the details of the encompassing plot. Simply put, it’s impressive. I’m especially pleased with how the focus on individuals serves to fill in the story, as well as successfully add to the sheer size of the calamities unfolding. There is a palpable weight to the actions taken by The Camerata and their unleashed threat, as well as to Red’s defiance while facing unimaginable dangers.

There are also significant themes used throughout the game that add to the vividness of the story. As I mentioned, the world of Transistor is intriguing, as it has this digital integration to shape its reality. While I’m convinced Red and the citizens of Cloudbank are real, as they eat, drink, ride motorcycles, live, die, etc…, it still raises questions as to just how real this world may be. How does a reality with virtual components work? What are these 3D pixel-like cubes that make up the buildings and city blocks made from and how does that pixel-like characteristic even work? I love this aspect because on its own, this reality is tremendously imaginative. I’m amazed with this digital aspect while keeping it believable, all the while tempting you to question just how it’s all possible. Then there’s the reality, or plane of existence, our Narrator resides in, within the Transistor. Can that be considered real, or is that digital, or perhaps something entirely different? It really makes you think…

Transistor | Camerata

Another theme I find myself impressed with is the use of shapes. A simple design choice by the devs, there is a prevalence of triangles and circles used throughout the game, in which triangles represent the good, including Red, while circles represent our antagonists. The clear similarity of the circular shapes and eye-like designs is intentional, yet powerful. The Process and much of what they have afflicted have these eye-like aesthetics, as if they or The Camerata are watching everyone. It’s a nice touch, as it alludes to surveillance by higher powers, similar to our own real life issues on the topic. The song In Circles is also a clear nod to this antagonism, as it plays during a boss fight with the Camerata member Sybil. Again, simple, yet deep.

Although the story delivers pure intrigue and such wonderful depth through these themes, I believe what truly makes this story outstanding is its characters. The characters and their development throughout Transistor are some of most enjoyable I’ve experienced. I absolutely love Red. Her strength alone is impressive, never hesitating or wavering in her determination to get back what was so violently taken from her. She may be a victim, but her courage and fierce determination to right wrongs makes her one not to fuck with and badass doesn’t begin to describe her depth. While we never hear her speak, her personality is on full display. Bold, fearless, determined, she has personality in droves. Her actions, especially her final actions, make her such a loving, memorable character. Even her small, yet sincere messages at terminals, her only means to communicate with her boyfriend/ our narrator, adds to her likeability. The extent to which this is achieved without her ever using spoken words is sensational, rivaling or perhaps even surpassing, the likes of Link or Samus. Her silence speaks volumes.

Transistor | Trace Data

Then there’s the boyfriend, our narrator. He’s just a voice, yet he possesses the same level of depth as Red. They are opposites in their existence, yet he is equally impactful, adding life and a flood of emotional immersion to the story. While he mainly serves to vocalize the feelings they both share, whether it’s the horror of unfolding events or their disdain towards the Camerata, the narrator has his own personality too, which is revealed during the more down-time moments spread throughout. He also balances out the terror around them by providing more lighthearted thoughts and initiating some very loving moments between him and Red. I always find myself rooting for these two throughout my playthroughs. Although it’s just the two of them, these characters have such dimension and detail that their personalities will stick with you long after you complete the game.

Along with such an incredible story and equally unforgettable characters, Transistor also delivers one of the most unique gameplay experiences. Transistor’s gameplay is focused on combat, combining real-time and turn-based play. The Transistor, your main weapon, can use the Trace Data of others for unique abilities, called Functions. Each Function is unique, having short range, long range, or area of effect characteristics and each can be equipped as a main attack (Active Slot), a secondary Function (Upgrade Slot) to improve another Active Function, or a passive skill (Passive Slot). For example, the Function Breach(), which is the narrator’s Trace Data Function, when assigned to an Active Slot can launch a linear, piercing attack that can hit multiple targets if they are in a line. When assigned to a Passive Slot, Breach() will speed up the attack time and add range of another Active Function. In the Passive Slot, Breach() will give more planning potential during a Turn(). With 16 unique Functions total, the combinations and variety to combat is extensive, allowing players to discover new possibilities and customize their fighting styles.

Transistor | Turn()

Throughout the game, you can unlock more memory in the Transistor, allowing you to assign more Functions. Up to 4 Active Slot Functions can be assigned for 4 attacks at the start, each of which can have two Upgrade Slots unlocked. 4 Passive Slots can also be unlocked, so at Red’s maximum level, all 16 Functions can be assigned. As for actual combat, when enemies appear on screen, they won’t wait, they’ll attack. You can simply unleash a Function’s attack, many of which have a recharge time, or, if you are overwhelmed, which is the case for many of Transistor’s battles, you can activate Turn(). Turn() freezes gameplay, allowing you to plan out a set of attacks that Red will unleash at blinding speed. Depending on their characteristics, each Function uses a certain amount of planning potential, indicated by a simple bar at the top of the screen. Weaker or shorter range Functions tend to use less potential than longer range and more powerful Functions. As you progress and unlock Upgrade and Passive Slots, certain Functions can provide more planning potential, a faster Turn() recharge after use, or lower a Function’s planning cost, allowing for a greater number of actions. This turn-based element is profound, adding a strategy component to gameplay without disrupting play flow. Paired with the sheer potential of customization, you have a gameplay mechanic that’s outstanding and unparalleled.

My only complaint in terms of gameplay is the linearity of progression. Similar to Bastion, Transistor doesn’t provide any real opportunities for exploration. There aren’t any hidden items to collect, so I suppose it’s unnecessary. I still feel let down, however, because the size of the play fields and the aesthetic magnificence of the game instills in me a desire to explore more of this extraordinary and imaginative world. Despite its linearity, Transistor easily provides enough story and action to satisfy.

Transistor | Functions

Transistor, at its core is pure style. This game’s aesthetic appeal is the main reason why it’s on my personal best game list. Supergiant Games has done such a marvelous job with Transistor’s aesthetics that they surpass countless triple-A efforts and make me wonder how an indie studio pulled off such a staggering level of aesthetic beauty. I am blown away with the sounds and sights of Transistor. Everything, from the city design and its virtual integration aspects to the designs of characters is incredible. The cityscape as it’s transformed by the Process is epic, giving the feel of grandeur and splendor of this futuristic city, as well as its heartbreaking dissimilation. I also love the painted cutscene portraits that depict Red’s movement through the city. Each of these portraits is a fantastic work of art all on its own. And even though they are 2D canvases, they fit perfectly with the 3D aesthetics. As for the 3D world we play in, the enemy designs are great. Their clean looks, with smooth curves and circular details are intimidating, as if their power and terror are hidden by their very appearance. The lighting and effects for attacks is also spectacular, conveying danger and power while maintaining the virtual-meets-reality motif. Finally, Red is gorgeous. The details that went into her model are remarkable, from her torn dress for better movement, the sleek knee-high boots and thigh-high stockings that match her energy and outgoing style, to her wearing her boyfriend’s jacket, all adorned with those triangle symbols. The Transistor is equally impressive, with its design utilizing both the triangle and circle shapes, as well as its lighting effects as the boyfriend speaks through it. Visually, I feel every time I play, I discover something new to admire.

The music of Transistor is stunning. Darren Korb went all out on this soundtrack and it truly is perfect. The music adds a tremendous amount of style and mood to the game. It’s such an integral part that there is no game without it. Ashley Barrett lends her voice to many of the tracks and her work is phenomenal. Every time I hear a track with her singing, it gets me pumped for more. The use of the tracks is equally staggering, infusing even more style and exponentially raising the tones and moods of the events on screen. For example, 3 different versions of In Circles plays during the Sybil boss fight. It starts with the normal, vocal version, as Red begins the fight in a theater venue familiar to her. As Sybil resurrects and becomes more processed and far more powerful, the “Processed” version of the song, _n C_rcl_s plays. Finally, with Sybil’s defeat, the voiceless, orchestral version of In Circles plays on Red’s exit, driving home the truth that Red’s voice will never be heard in this venue ever again. This is one of the most memorable moments in gaming I’ve ever experienced. Ever. Period. It’s that powerful. And that’s just a third of the way into the game. Darren Korb is at his best and, needless to say, I’ve fallen in love with Ashley Barrett’s singing voice.

Transistor | The Transistor

Transistor, from start to finish, is immersive, charming, emotional, imaginative, the list goes on. This is a true gem, not to be missed. The one real regret is that it had to end eventually. I knew this, but so badly did I want it to last just a little longer. Just one more encounter. One more conversation. One more touching moment. Just one more, just a little longer. As an experience, it would be impossible to forget. Emotionally, few games have left such a lingering impact. It has so much to share and will make your imagination run satisfyingly wild. It pains me to judge this game professionally, giving it a 4.5 (closer to 4.8) instead of the 5 that I so wish to give it. I genuinely want to forget its few tiny flaws; this is how much I love this game. It may not be flawless, but that doesn’t take away from its sheer magnificence. Transistor is an absolute masterpiece.

Review Score

About Drew D.

Drew has been an avid gamer most of his life, favoring single-player campaigns. For him, a worthwhile game is one that immerses you; it envelops you and draws out an array of emotions that produce those memorable moments we live for as gamers.