It took me a couple of hours of playing Transistor to figure out just what the Dickens was going on, and a good chunk of time later I still wasn’t completely confident in my understanding of it. Supergiant’s second makes a habit of disorienting and confusing, placing you in a post cataclysmic ghost town with a gorgeous isometric viewpoint, and giving constant audio commentary on events in a way that feels very much like Bastion‘s follow-up before making a sharp turn away from the familiar.

The ground’s first significant shift under your feet comes mere minutes in, where the combat system is revealed to you. Unlike Bastion, this is no action game, and using your four primary attacks housed on each face button in real-time will see speedy defeat. Instead, you’ll have to hit the right trigger to stop time and cue up actions and movements before snapping back and seeing your violent plans put into effect. In skilled hands, this is a complex system that has beautiful results, dashes behind enemies leading to back stabs, bounces to different enemies and well lined up area of effect spells all happening in one combo and played out in just a couple of seconds of action.

Getting going though, mine weren’t skilled hands, and it’s likely yours won’t be either. Outside of the first four unlocked abilities, there’s no explicit instruction in game on what each attack does, and the emphasis is on experimentation and finding things out for yourself. The lack of hand holding is to be applauded, but meant my initial efforts with Transistor were clumsy, a two left feet inelegance that felt awkward in comparison to the stunning visuals. It isn’t a hard game; I ended up dying all of twice in my first play through, but I was aware I wasn’t good enough at it as it wanted me to be.

The roster of enemies is fairly small, and boss fights are rare (and honestly, weak). Rank and file enemies though are well designed and keep you flowing between big damage and crowd control.

The roster of enemies is fairly small, and boss fights are rare (and honestly, weak). Rank and file enemies though are well designed and keep you flowing between big damage and crowd control.

Still, Transistor does want you to be better; it just wants you to put the work in yourself. Bastion’s skill tests return, but rather than a diversion to unlock goodies, Transistor’s challenges are essential learning tools. Performance tests limit what attacks you have access to and teach you what attacks work best in your four primary slots on the face buttons, and which are best used augmenting a main attack (a charged up explosive attack, for instance, can be used as a modifier on a different strike to give it a wider area of effect). Planning tests, meanwhile, are addictive puzzles in themselves, placing you with a batch of enemies that have to be destroyed in a single turn, meaning you not only learn how to manage action points, but also the value of taking your time when everything’s frozen rather than wading in to danger.

In fact, you still may not feel like the combative depths have fully been plumbed until new game plus is dipped into, which I’m in two minds about; I felt great when things clicked, but just in the interest of efficiency, felt the game could have met me halfway, especially when such an expansive array of systems only has six hours to reach through to the player. On the other hand, and in a heavy-handed bid to enhance a sense of character progression, late game abilities are incredibly overpowered, removing cool down timers and doing such huge damage with one use that the willing will breeze through and move on having seen what they wanted to see rather than take the rewarding new game plus route, or use the unlockable difficulty augmenting restrictors brought forth from Bastion.

Like the combat, the story is similarly desirous to have you do a bit of digging to unveil, again with some mixed results. It starts with a mystery; Cloudbank celebrity Red awaking with her dress torn, voice missing and a familiar figure talking to her from within the Transistor itself, a talking electric sword guiding her. Oh, and the sword happens to be protruding from a man’s chest at the time. From there, you can’t help but wonder why and how a combat driven RPG can be delivered in a high-tech cityscape; where combat is very different to Bastion, Transistor’s set-up of an extinction event striking a colourful utopia is very much the same.

Switching between real time and planning modes can trick you into rushing when you don't need to. Challenge tests help you learn to take your time.

Switching between real time and planning modes can trick you into rushing when you don’t need to. Challenge tests help you learn to take your time.

It’s the dots that have to be joined that are different; a story that explores notions of choice in an extrapolated social network driven future, where everything down to weather and ambient light outside is decided by polls at data terminals. When the Camerata rebel against what they perceive as an illusion of democracy, the resulting release of a swarm of robotic creatures called the Process gets out of hand a bit and people die in huge numbers. Dialogue is rare (there’s not many left in Cloudbank to chat with) and most exposition comes in the form of text files, usually when you acquire a new ability, as each expansion of the Transistor’s abilities represents a deceased Cloudbank citizen or defeated Camerata member.

These files are well written, and cleverly incorporated into combat; in order to reveal more information on a character, you’ll have to use their respective ability in active, passive and upgrade slots in separate battles, so the story hungry have a reason to experiment with the combat system. That said, they are still as awkward as text files in games always are; I don’t want to come across as Mr. ‘I hate reading’, but their presence are always indicative of a lore too bloated for the game to support it narratively, or of egos too fragile to cut non-essential content. Ignore character profiles though, or the news bits on data terminals, and you’ll have little to no idea of Transistor’s story, and just be looking at the (very pretty) visuals and listening to the (very pretty) music in between fights.

Transostor is often beautiful, and beautifully designed too, a strong story in a bold package with some great mechanical hooks. That strong story is told in a clunky way, though. Its mechanics are disorienting at the start and unbalanced by the endgame. Finally, that bold package is accentuated by completely superfluous jumping and humming abilities on the R1 and L1 buttons that solely provide a flash animation and washed out colours in the environment respectively; a small, poignant reminder that however much substance is here, sizzle just about takes priority over steak.

KAIJU VERDICT
2/4 pops: decent. There might be problems that mount up and prevent it from being a top tier game, or it might not do enough to quite make it stand out, but a 2 can still be an enjoyable experience that the curious should try.

 

PS4 version tested.

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