I’m just going to say it: Transistor is one of the best action RPGs to have come out so far. While on the short side, each hour of its’ 6-hour long campaign is an enjoyable combination of intrigue, puzzles, and combat. The game offers little explanation of what’s going on in either its’ cyberpunk story ripe with mystery, or its complex combat mechanics that emphasise experimentation by the player. None of the handholding tutorials that plague modern gaming are present. Everything is up to the player to figure out, every bit of which is immensely enjoyable.
Transistor throws you right into the middle of the action and never looks back. Instead, it relies on the player to fill in the missing parts of the story that have come before, by using subtlety to full effect in a way many games these days struggle to. This is because Transistor puts all the responsibility on the player to decipher and flesh out the details of the world Supergiant Games has created. While this can be frustrating to some gamers, I instead found it to add just another layer to the overall gaming experience.
None of Transistor’s story follows the normal tropes many prior stories take. The game puts the player into the role of Red, a lounge singer who’s had her voice stolen for some unknown nefarious purpose, armed with a talking sword (The Transistor) that serves as the narrator. Unlike Bastion’s narrator, Transistor is a biased narrator who relays information from his own point of view. This makes it hard to tell what is truth in this world and what is just the feelings of the Transistor. Even Transistor’s quartet of boss characters aren’t painted in black and white strokes. Instead it leaves everything they do in a strange grey area, so much so that after about the second boss encounter, laying that final blow on the bosses will be met with mixed emotions. It’s a nice breath of fresh air to have a company make a game in which everything each character does is neither black nor white.
The artstyle of Transistor doesn’t falter much from that in Bastion. The hand drawn, anime inspired graphics remain, turning the neo-cyberpunk world into a crisp and beautiful setting. All the character models make each character pop, looking unique. The comparison to Tron will be made by many, thanks to many references to computer tech and the brightly lit world. I found it more like a Blade Runner in space than the supercomputer world. With a standard 3/4 isometric camera angle, the artstyle present allows for the player to see much of the detailed world, as well as to concentrate on Red and her actions, which (believe me) you’ll want to see.
Music is at the heart and soul of Transistor. Everything from Red’s past of being a singer, to the many concert stages you encounter through the game harken back to some deep connection with music. The game uses its’ score as another element of storytelling, with fast-paced music alluding to prior actions the player never sees, as well as slow melodic music during fights that make the player even more hesitant to kill the enemy. There is even a button on the controller that is reserved for letting the player stop and make Red hum along with the music, showing an even deeper connection to it. I am one of those people who usually doesn’t care much about the music in a game, and I can honestly say that Transistor will make you care.
For everything that Transistor gets right, it’s combat is still the real shining star, allowing for two completely different approaches to each combat scenario. One approach allows the player to go head first into combat and controls like a normal action RPG, using abilities and waiting for cool downs as you mow down enemy after enemy. The other approach is what makes the combat stand out, by allowing you to freeze time and set up all of your actions before letting time flow again and rapidly enacting them all at once. It turns every combat encounter into a puzzle, and with the high failure rate of the first approach, it’s clear this is the way the game was meant to be played. There is nothing like freezing time, setting up your actions on the field, and then letting go as you watch your actions fail or succeed. While this wouldn’t work for every game, in Transistor its one of the best aspects of the game.
In most RPGs, as the player gains levels they get stronger and can live longer. In Transistor, when the player gains a new level, rather than increasing their health or strength they are given two new powers to choose from. One of these powers is normally a more offensive ability, while the other is normally a more defensive one. As levels gets higher and higher more choices are given. These not only include the choice between two powers but also the choice of a few restrictors, as well as the ability to increase one’s mem, get a new passive slot or give one of the main abilities another augmented slot. Restrictors make the game harder but reward the player with even more XP, and each of the unlocked restrictors can be toggled on and off at the players’ discretion. Mem acts like AP points in many other games – each ability has a mem cost, and as those powers get equipped the available mem goes down. While this constant access to new powers and challenges may normally be overwhelming, Transistor does things right by allowing a full respec at any of its many check points.
The abilities themselves are one of the coolest additions to video games that Transistor implements. Each ability can be equipped in one of three ways. One of these is as an active power. Only four active powers can be equipped at one time and these serve as Red’s main abilities. They can also be equipped as a passive power. A passive power grants Red certain things that don’t need to be activated. These range from increasing the amount of actions available when time is frozen, to an increase in defense. The last way abilities can be equipped is to boost the power of an active ability. By doing this, you can alter the nature of the active power to add new and interesting aspects to them. It’s a system that really rewards exploration, and no two players will play the game exactly the same.
Transistor is one of the best gaming experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. Its unique combat and distinctive storytelling paired with stunning visuals and an extremely memorable and emotional soundtrack make Transistor one of (if not the) best games currently available on the PS4. This is why I give Transistor a grade of A.