Late to the Game: Transistor

written for The Cartographer’s Guild, 2017


Supergiant Games

Released: October 2014

Played: May 2017

Are you looking for something different?  Do you like games with stunning and vibrant graphics?  Do you like mysterious sirens wielding great swords that would make Cloud Strife feel inadequate?  Then ladies and gentlemen, I recommend “Transistor”.

The second offering from Supergiant Games, “Transistor” is an isometric sci-fi action RPG that takes place in the city of Cloudbank and follows Red, a songstress who has been robbed of her ability to speak or sing.  Red wields the Transistor, a great sword which houses the Trace (Essence?  Living memory?  Soul?) of Red’s lover.  While it is classified as an RPG because it utilizes levels and a skills system, “Transistor” follows a linear storyline from beginning to end, with some time off to do challenge levels.

The game employs an interesting mix of real-time action and turn based strategy, with an evolving and dynamic power system.  As the game progresses, you find other Traces, which unlock abilities called Functions.  Functions can be equipped as one of four primary abilities, or they can be used to modify other Functions with both active and passive effects.  The ability to customize your attacks and change your combat methods adds interest to fights that could otherwise seem repetitive – because combat is repetitive in every game, I don’t care what you’re playing.  In Transistor, you’re fighting a collective consciousness known as The Process, which spawns out sleek red and white robotics with a variety of attacks and abilities.  My personal favorite is the Snapshot, a floating robot that takes Red’s picture every time it attacks (which then flashes across the screen).  And by “favorite” I mean I found the concept interesting.  The little bastards are a pain.

If Supergiant Games is not synonymous with magnificent visuals then most reviewers are petty and lacking any appreciation of beauty.  “Transistor” is a work of art.  The setting is art nouveau with touches of “Tron: Legacy”.  Honestly, it’s all of my hopes for the 2020’s, fashion and aesthetic wise.  Patterns that seem inspired by Gustav Klimt decorate the landscape while the character designs have touches of Alphonse Mucha.  As the Process takes over, structures that look suspiciously like they came from the Apple store invade the city, overwhelming the colorful and vibrant landscape with white, the gold and blue lights all turning red. 

The game’s soundtrack is as important as its visual aesthetic.  Red’s abilities to sing or speak have been taken, but she can still hum.  She hums to you while you plan out your moves during the turn-based strategy moments.  If you press Tab while out in the world she will hold the Transistor to her and hum for a moment.  As the story unfolds you hear the song she once sang and learn about her life as a musician.  Completing challenges will unlock different pieces from the soundtrack, which you can then play at your leisure. 

The story itself is immersive and poignant.  Much like “Bastion”, Supergiant’s first game, “Transistor” plunges you straight into the action with little to no exposition and the story unfolds as you progress.  The Trace in the Transistor is our narrator for this game, and he talks about what happened and comments on events as you move through Cloudbank.  He ruminates on parts of the city (which you can trigger at designated points), and from his asides you come to understand what he and Red were to each other.  The minions of the Process get their names from his quips, and through him you learn about the Camerata, a group of individuals responsible for bringing the Process to Cloudbank. 

With an average playing time of around eight or nine hours, “Transistor” is not a serious time commitment.  It can be replayed to unlock further abilities and ways to utilize those abilities, which is great fun for those of you interested in the mechanics.  The story does not really change, so other than changing a handful of small, superfluous dialogue choices there isn’t much to be gleaned there.  Regardless of how many times you intend to play it, however, it is most certainly worth playing.  While it is available for both iOS and Android, I recommend picking it up for the PC so you can fully enjoy the graphics and details.  If PC games aren’t your thing, though, and you prefer mobile, still buy the game.  It is beautiful and artistic and almost haunting in ways.  It is more than worth your time and money.

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