Supergiant Games burst onto the independent scene in 2011 with their debut title Bastion. The game set itself apart from more traditional action RPGs with its vibrant art, varied combat, and a masterfully crafted plot with naturally integrated dynamic narration. Bastion received considerable praise from critics and consumers, leading to high expectations for the studio’s next work. As is often the case, however, the successor to a massively popular work of art rarely lives up to or exceeds expectations, regardless of its overall quality. Transistor, Supergiant’s most recent title for PC and Playstation 4, unfortunately falls into that trap. While the overall game is enjoyable, it lacks some of the magic that Bastion had.

Cloudbank is a city that prides itself on art and entertainment. The city administrators consider catering to the cultural sensibilities of its residents as the most important priority, to the point that they will reshape the city to satisfy popular opinion. The layout and design of buildings, the weather, even the color of the sky can be altered based on the aesthetic whims of the masses. Several high-ranking officials have grown tired of the lack of stability unending change brings, forming an organization dubbed The Camerata that will bring about the order they believe Cloudbank requires. Using a powerful device known as the Transistor, they unleash a swarm of monsters, The Process, onto the city. As The Process assimilates everything they touch, transforming the once vibrant city into a sterile white ghost town, The Camerata murders several prominent citizens, absorbing their life essence into the Transistor so they can reshape Cloudbank into their ideal utopia. One of their intended victims, the popular singer Red, manages to avoid this horrid fate, though her lover is not as lucky. The enigmatic sword slays him and steals away her voice. Miraculously, Red’s love retains his sanity in the Transistor, integrating with the machine to unlock its power for her use. Using the Camerata’s own tool against them, Red works do undo their chaos by eliminating The Process and restoring Cloudbank to its former glory.

Like Bastion, Transistor piques the player’s curiosity from the outset with an intriguing mystery. How is Red’s lover still alive in the Transistor? Why is the Camerata willing to destroy everything? Where did The Process come from and can it be stopped? And like its predecessor, the answers to these enigmas are gradually revealed as Red makes her way through the rapidly dying Cloudbank. Supergiant once again did a stellar job in world building through its environment. The city is all but devoid of life, each district displaying a varying level of corruption brought on by The Process. With no one present to clarify what’s going on, Red has to gather information from OVC news terminals. At first the posts try to downplay the damage caused by The Process as a temporary inconvenience, hyping athletic events and fashion shows while downplaying the disappearance of thousands, until eventually the threat becomes so great the administrators can no longer deny that the crisis is beyond their control. It’s a blunt critique of the inevitable collapse that arises when government and media rely on “bread and circuses” to distract the public from serious issues.

Not every question is resolved however, resulting in some rather confusing loose ends. It’s mentioned repeatedly that Cloudbank has the technology to instantly reshape the natural world, but not how the technology to perform such miracles works. Around the halfway point players learn a bit more about how The Process operate but are still left in the dark concerning where they come from or what they truly are. There’s a colossal Process referred to as The Spine which causes the spirit in the Transistor to act erratically whenever it’s around, hinting at some link between the entities which is never explaiend. When Red encounters someone who’s been killed, their consciousness materializes in the form of a glowing cube called a Trace which the man in the Transistor can communicate with as well as absorb into the sword to enhance its powers. Are Traces souls, or is everyone living there part of a massive simulated environment like in The Matrix or ReBoot? The possibility that Cloudbank is an artificial world is strengthened with the repeated use of computer terminology in location naming (Junction Jan’s, South Frustum Road, Backdoors, etc.) I imagine this was left vague so that it would be open to interpretation from individual players, but I personally would have preferred some clarity.

 

The concept of Cloudbank was fascinating, though I don’t feel enough was done with the premise. An entire city where any part of it can be changed at a moment’s notice if the people wish it so. Yet there are only two points where this is seen in action; once to determine the color of the evening sky, and once to decide on rain or snow. I think Transistor would have benefited if it had been set during the collapse of the city rather than in its aftermath. This would have allowed players to observe how an environment in constant flux could result in a chaotic infrastructure. I have a greater investment in a fictional world if I can see how it and the people living there function, which is why I found BioShock Infinite more compelling than the first two BioShock games. Few games are able to pull this off well, one of them being Supergiant’s earlier work Bastion. In that game, while you explored the world after it had collapsed, you could still get a sense of what it was like before the Calamity because of Rucks vivid narration.

Character biographies hint at the psychological stress endured by those responsible for transforming the city over and over again, as well as how the lower classes and those who didn’t choose a profession the administrators deemed “acceptable” are inconvenienced by the changes, denied a voice to protest their mistreatment. There was potential for social commentary about the dangers of a government that constantly kowtows to the demands of the majority while leaving the underprivileged disenfranchised. Art, and by extension democracy, is dictated by those with power without considering how their decisions may inconvenience others. Had this allegory been further explored, it would have greatly strengthened the narrative.

Transistor is primarily focused on telling the story of its world rather than the lives of its inhabitants, resulting in a small cast with minimal development. This doesn’t mean the characters devoid of substance, but some are more significantly fleshed out than others, most notably the protagonists. Red, regretfully, barely has any memorable traits, a massive flaw for a player character. Since she was deprived of a voice, she can only communicate by typing at news terminals. It lets players get a glimpse into her thoughts, but so much of what she says is generic for fictional characters that lived through traumatic events: she wants revenge for what happened, fear and anger cloud her judgment, she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to save the city or restore her lover to life. There’s nothing unique that sets Red apart from other stock survivors, another reason why I think the game would have been better if it had shown her before disaster struck. There’s only one flashback scene which showcases Red’s prowess as a singer, and I won’t deny that Ashley Barrett does an incredible job with her soulful, smoky delivery. One oddity I noticed was that despite Red having lost her voice, she’s still capable of yelling and humming.

Conversely, the man inhabiting the Transistor has much more depth despite lacking a name and a personal history. It’s obvious that he truly cares for Red, that while he wants justice for the wrongs committed against both of them, he hates the idea of her putting herself in mortal danger. He’s the only member of the duo capable of speaking, but the strong bond between them is as clear as it would be with traditional dialogue. Logan Cunningham returns to voice the unknown man, portraying a vastly different narrator than his previous role as the world-weary sage Rucks. Instead of knowing everything about the disaster that’s befallen the city, he’s learning about it as the player is. He’s confused, frightened, desperate for a return to the way things were. Yet he pushes aside his fear out of his devotion to Red, offering reassurances that they will succeed, and even getting in a few clever jokes to lighten the tension. Like Rucks, his narration is dynamic, changing depending on the responses made to prompts at certain terminals or if the player delays in carrying out an action. My only complaint is that once the game is over, his true identity and backstory remain a cipher, diminishing the sense of closure.

Though there are over a dozen additional character biographies to discover, the only other people Red encounters in the game are the members of the Camerata. Two of them, Grant and Asher Kendrall, die before you meet with them, though Asher leaves messages through terminals that provide insight into their motivations. Royce Bracket, the last living male member of the team, further expands on what drove the Camerata to take drastic actions, as well as how they honestly believed what they were doing was for the best of everyone in Cloudbank. They weren’t simply cartoonish villains who wanted to do evil for evil’s sake; they had noble goals that they were willing to carry out extreme acts to achieve for the sake of progress. Royce’s stiff tone and detached, irregular speech also suggests that their misguided actions were partially driven by mental instability. Sybil Reisz, the Camerata’s sole female member, is only encountered as a boss fight after she’s been all but completely assimilated by The Process. While in her corrupted state she demonstrates true madness, it leads to another situation where I thought having the game take place during the attacks would have made for a stronger story. If we had seen Sybil from the start as a fairly normal person, then watched her gradually fall further into insanity as the infection took hold over time, it would have made the danger posed by The Process that much more tangible.

Transistor is also similar to Bastion in regards to how it plays. Both are action-RPGs with real time combat, but Transistor has several variations that significantly improve the battle system. While much of the action plays out in real time, the game has a planning mode called Turn() which temporarily freezes time, allowing you to set up a chain of attacks that can be executed rapidly. Turn() is incredibly useful if you need to deal a severe amount of damage to a powerful enemy in a short amount of time, break defenses without worrying about coming under fire, or simply make a quick escape to get behind cover. It’s not without its drawbacks however, as burning through the meter prevents you from using any standard attacks in the real time phase until it replenishes, leaving you vulnerable.

 

Don’t expect enemies to simply stand around and take abuse during Turn() mode however. The Process show considerable intelligence, at least more so than the monsters from Bastion. They’re still capable of moving, though at a much slower rate, and certain attacks can even knock them out of range for the next planned strike, rendering it useless unless you estimate where they’ll appear next. Each new species of Process encountered has its own special techniques: Young Ladies teleport after taking damage and create clones, Fetches are capable of paralyzing Red, Cheerleaders create protective shields, and Snapshots can obscure the screen with a picture. Some variants will also produce Cells after being destroyed which will allow them to respawn at full health if Red doesn’t absorb them into the Transistor in time. Enemies adapt and evolve, forcing players to reconsider their strategies in order to find the best method of defeating them. It truly tests the player’s skills in combat rather than simply overwhelming them with large numbers of foes, though near the end of the game they do tend to appear in massive swarms, usually two or three different species using their abilities in conjunction with one another to bolster their defenses and put Red at a disadvantage. This behavior reinforces the idea that The Process is a gestalt entity operating under a guiding intelligence rather than a group of mindless beasts acting on impulse.

 

Leveling up is fairly easy, with every battle completed filling the experience bar by 10 to 30% based on how difficult the fight was. Reaching the next level or discovering a new Trace unlocks a Function, a special skill that modifies the efficacy of the Transistor. Functions offer a unique spin on strategic combat, but the complexities of their use can be off-putting for some players. A Function can be used in three ways: one of the four main attacks, a supplemental skill to boost a central attack, or providing a passive benefit. Since there are 16 Functions altogether, it may take a bit of experimentation to find the best arrangements to fit individual play styles. Here are some configurations I found beneficial during my playthrough: use Spark() and Load() as upgrades for either Ping() or Crash() to unlock projectile energy attacks and deal damage faster than those Functions would do on their own (it takes a few seconds for Red to hoist the sword and swing it down), use Cull() only during Turn() since you need to be very close to the enemy for it to have the best impact, keep either Mask() or Switch() as a central attack to reduce the danger while you’re waiting for Turn() to replenish, and have Jaunt() as a passive effect to rapidly replenish Turn() energy. Ultimately, you’ll want to try a Function in each of the three possible slots since that’s the only way to unlock the full biographies of important characters.

One final recommendation I’d offer concerning Functions is to have Flood() and Tap() as passive effects since they allow for health regeneration and a larger life bar, respectively. This is crucial because outside of these abilities, there is no way to restore health in combat. The only way to avoid taking damage is to dodge enemies or take cover behind walls. I can understand wanting to provide a challenge by making players think on their feet, but this seems a bit excessive. It is balanced out by not instantly killing you if you run out of life points, but once the health meter is depleted you’ll lose one of your functions, continuing until they’re all gone and you start from the last save point. Thankfully they’re restored after you pass by two save areas, but it can definitely throw you off your game if one of the more powerful attacks was removed. Reloading from the previous save area does eliminate this problem, and in the latter half of the game I was doing this regularly. Difficulty can also be increased through the use of Limiters, which like Functions are unlocked at every new level. Limiters increase the amount of experience gained after each battle by 2% at the expense of making enemies harder to defeat.

 

There isn’t much else to the game aside from fighting and experimenting with Functions to obtain character data. The only area that can be visited outside of Cloudbank is an island hub accessed through glowing entryways called Backdoors. Several training areas are available in this hub, which are useful for leveling up faster or experimenting with new Function combinations. However, the training exercises quickly become repetitive to the point where I didn’t want to bother with them after the first two of each. Instead of allowing you to master individual Functions, you just have to survive waves of enemies or kill enough of the Process in a set amount of time. One of the most blatantly missed opportunities to vary gameplay involved traveling around Cloudbank. In some sections Red has to reach a district of the city by motorcycle, speedboat, or even riding on a swarm of flying Process cells. These could have been the basis for some fast-paced vehicle sections to test player reflexes, fending off threats racing alongside them or making quick decisions on which direction to take. Instead they’re barely-interactive cutscenes where you just press one button to accelerate or change the vehicle’s altitude.

Visuals once again showcase Jen Zee’s uniquely breathtaking style of art. Her lavish, colorful hand-painted designs and fluid animation make the world appear to be a living watercolor painting. There are a few hindrances though. The isometric perspective makes it difficult to see more intricate details on the character models, though they are clearer in the static image cutscenes. And while Cloudbank boasts an interesting hybrid architecture inspired by art deco and neo-noir, none of the districts appear visually distinctive from one another. It’s only when they become assimilated by The Process that they show some variation, most noticeably near the end when the twisted spatial geometries result in impossible configurations. Sound design relies on several filters to give Functions, terminals, and Process creatures their own distinctive electronic leitmotifs, further suggesting that the world the game is set in may actually be a computer simulation. While the soundtrack boasts a variety of instrumental pieces that blend old-world music with electronic rock, as well as several more songs that give Ashley Barrett a chance to shine, I didn’t really find any of the tracks that memorable.

 

There’s no denying Transistor has flaws. It addresses thought-provoking ideas without fully exploring them, creates a world that seemed vastly more interesting before the events of the game, and seems to be stuck between trying to be its own unique title while attempting to replicate the successful aspects of Bastion. Despite every object you can interact with urging you to come closer, Transistor never lets you get close enough to immerse yourself within it. That being said, I still enjoyed it. Even if the premise was overly ambitious when compared to the game’s limitations, it was intriguing enough to keep me playing through to the end. Function use takes some time to comprehend, but once I got the hang of it I found the combat quite enjoyable. And of course, the art is absolutely beautiful. It’s not as refined as Bastion, but it’s still worth playing.

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