The first time I got to try “Transistor” out was at PAX Prime 2013. It was the final day of the show. I can’t tell you how many times I walked around the Supergiant Games booth waiting for the line that was easily two or three hours long to die down. I got lucky and was offered a chance to try it out on a machine behind a partition that was like a darkened alley with only a monitor and the PlayStation 4 controller light bar for light. The demo blew me away.
Fast forward eight months, and I haven’t had to decompress after playing a video game since last year’s monster hit “The Last of Us.” I knew Supergiant Games’s sophomore effort, “Transistor,” would be good. I didn’t think it would be this good. I had no idea that it would leave such an indelible mark on me.
“Transistor” is an action role-playing game that thrusts you in the role of Red, a popular singer in the “Transistor” world. She wields a talking sword, the titular Transistor, who apparently shares a bond with Red.
Their bond isn’t immediately revealed, as is the case with much of the story, but like the story, the bond grows stronger. “Transistor” employs a narrator, which happens to be the sword, to reveal the story through running dialogue as Red traverses each isometric section of Cloudbank.
It is a tactic that may turn some impatient players off, but it is a critical storytelling method to create an original experience. I couldn’t imagine the story told in any other way.
Very few games place as great a deal of significance on the music and voice acting as “Transistor” does. Usually a game’s soundtrack functions as a way to provide atmosphere to the story. “Transistor’s” sound is an integral part of the story thanks to an astonishingly great job by Darren Korb, Supergiant’s audio director, and Ashley Barrett, the sublime voice of Red. It isn’t just setting a mood. It is helping to give life to the mysterious world of Cloudbank that sounds as good as it looks.
Cloudbank is a gorgeously rendered neo-noir city besieged by the Process, a robotic army controlled by a clandestine group that is bent on hunting Red while destroying the city along the way. The beautiful hand-drawn art clearly was inspired by cyberpunk film and anime. The isometric view can be a bit problematic in certain areas as buildings in the foreground obscure the action on the ground. Red looks fantastic and her animations are silky smooth as she dashes from enemy to enemy, which are the key to moving on to the next area.
“Transistor’s” gameplay is both challenging and rewarding. It doesn’t do much to hold your hand, so there is a bit of trial and error in figuring out the best approach to combat. You can choose between real-time or turn-based action.
Red has the ability to freeze time, thus allowing the player to move into position for an attack or to unleash a combo string. As Red gains experience levels, she unlocks new attacks, action skills and passive abilities, including Limiters, which give negative effects to Red but offer bonuses to experience gained. New enemies or more powerful variations are introduced along the way.
The challenge seems to escalate in just the right way so that the game never really feels unfair with its difficulty. There are so many ways to approach combat. Figuring out high damage combos and survival techniques is essential, especially against large groups of enemies or the bosses.
While the game was shorter than I expected it to be, there is a new game mode called Recursion that is even more challenging. At roughly six hours, it was just right. After taking that time to decompress, I decided that anything more might have diluted the experience.
“Transistor” hit all the right notes for me sharp writing, tight gameplay, brilliant music and graphics. When it ended, I was a big ball of emotions. It felt great.
Reach the reporter at Michael.Jerome.Martin@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter at @Bizarro_Mike