I am not the most experienced when it comes to games developed by Supergiant Games. I have played (and greatly enjoyed) Bastion, but I have not played any of their titles since. When Transistor was announced for Nintendo Switch, I was very excited, considering I’ve heard a lot of great things. I purposely stayed away from spoilers to enjoy the experience for myself, and as such this review (as with all my reviews) will be spoiler free so you can enjoy the same feeling of discovery.
Transistor puts you in the role of Red, a young songstress who has her voice stolen. Red is famous in the city of Cloudbank, a seemingly idyllic futuristic city. During the attack that caused Red to lose her voice, she acquires the Transistor, a special sword that seems to carry the consciousness of people inside it. Rather than escape as a fugitive, Red decides to fight back against the Process, and the shadowy organization that commands these robotic enemies.
It is important to note right off the bat, that when you fire up Transistor for the first time, you are thrown right into the action. You will have to wait for the opening cutscene to finish before you can open up the menu and adjust volumes, subtitles, or any other option. This was frustrating for me, as I wound up having to play the opening section again because I missed all the dialogue.
Transistor takes a “Learn-by-Doing” approach to combat. The Transistor utilizes “functions” as attacks. As you defeat enemies and level up, you’ll earn new functions that can be slotted into the weapon as either attacks or upgrades. There are very few tutorials, which actually gets really frustrating in certain places when you are starting out.
This is mainly because Transistor is a very unforgiving game. When Red’s HP runs out, you don’t die, instead, you lose one of your functions, narrowing your combat capabilities in battle. The loss of functions isn’t permanent though, as you can replenish one at the time by finding access points. Access points are where you slot your functions into the Transistor and are scattered throughout each area. They also act similarly to save points and usually appear after (or before) tough battles.
The interesting thing about the functions you use in battle is that they are the absorbed traces of certain NPC characters. You can learn about them in access points, which gives a bit of context as to the social politics of Cloudbank. Additionally, you can access OVC terminals to see what the city government is telling the people, though it does seem to be a bit of a propaganda machine.
As you progress, you can also equip Limiters, which give negative effects but allow you to level up faster. These are optional, but make the game more challenging for those who need an extra challenge. Once you get to a certain point in the story, you unlock the “Backdoor” which is a hub world that gives you challenges and serves as a reprieve from the main storyline.
As I previously mentioned, combat is focused on the “Learn-by-Doing” philosophy. You will have waves of enemies attack you, and it is up to you to figure out the most efficient way to kill them before they kill you. There is an element of “real-time with pause” gameplay as well, as you are able to freeze time and issue a series of function attacks in succession. If you don’t learn how to utilize this system properly, you won’t survive long.
Honestly, combat is where Transistor suffers. The combat feels overcomplicated for an action RPG and while I understand the premise, the difficulty of the enemies forces you to spam certain functions and severely cripples you if you lose them. The sad part about this is that every other aspect of Transistor is very well done and lovingly crafted.
Transistor’s level designs are beautiful, and the voice acting is very well done. Somehow, the team at Supergiant Games were able to give you a glimpse at how the city lives and breathes, whilst also showing the desolation of it as the Process claims the community. I also greatly enjoy the storyline, which is a tale of love, revenge, and has all the trimmings of a tragedy.
I’m sure there are plenty of people that will enjoy the combat. People who enjoy real-time strategy experiences or difficult, frantic combat will feel right at home. However, as someone who likes to take his time with combat, I found that there was much to be desired. It almost felt like the combat was an exercise in frustration, where your health bar is half empty before you even know what happened. The controls are fine, but the mechanics themselves make the game difficult to master.
If you are looking for an immersive experience with a great story, Transistor will scratch the itch nicely. Yet I find myself somewhat disappointed, considering how much I enjoyed Bastion and its gameplay. The tale of Cloudbank, Red, and the Transistor is a fairly decent one, but it isn’t for everyone.
A Nintendo Switch review copy of Transistor was provided by Supergiant Games for the purpose of this review.