Transistor Game: In-depth Review
Do you have a game that you really love and will go back to constantly just to re-experience it for whatever reason? Well, for me that’s Transistor. Since first playing it when it came out in 2014 I will frequently go back to Transistor time and time again just to revisit Red and the rest of Cloudbank city despite the fact I have an ever-growing reserve of games that I’ve yet to play or finish. And likely never will get to.
There’s just something about this game… its story and presentation that just keeps bringing me back even after playing through it multiple times. What is it about this game in particular that makes me like it so much?
Take a look at Transistor’s Story
At first glimpse, Transistor might not look like much – just a very pretty looking Indie game (which it is), but there’s a little more depth to it than meets the eye. From its narrative to its visuals… to its game-play. But before we go too far into that, let’s start with the basic premise.
Transistor opens on this beautifully rendered piece of art that appears to be just a loading screen while the game starts up. Until you press a button while waiting and the big blue so-called transistor currently sitting in someone’s chest cavity begins to talk to you:
Hey Red… We’re not going to get away with this, are we..?
After this, you were then thrown into the story in medias res style as Red – a club singer in the city of Cloudbank who’s lost her voice after being attacked. Once you pull the transistor, you’re left to find out what has happened and why these things called the Process are trying to murder you and seemingly consume the city along with everyone else.
For some, the beginning of the Transistor may be confusing as you’re just tossed right into the middle of it without any pretense on who or where you are or why you should even care. I personally think this type of start works for the betterment of the game… at least from a tonal perspective.
Initial Gameplay Features
The first hour focuses on establishing the tone of the game and letting the player get accustomed to the controls and doesn’t bog you down with a lot of exposition and cut scenes. This is something that Supergiant did with Bastion as well wanting the exploration to feel much more organic.
Before facing the first Boss at the end of the first act, you are given a brief scene/panoramic art piece to explain what happened to Red and how you got where you were. The confusion the player has at the beginning and through the rest of the game nicely echoes the main characters and their attempt to figure out why this is all happening.
In keeping with the new Noir theme of the game, a lot of the world-building and plot is instead conveyed via the private monologues spoken by the voice trapped in the transistor provided by Logan Cunningham.
Transistor as the main tool
Aside from being your only companion throughout the game, the transistor is also your only way of fighting off the Process. As you progress through the game, the transistor can absorb data and turn it into functions – each with their own specific abilities, like sending out longer inch projectiles or summoning your own dog in order to help you.
Functions do go beyond just basic attack techniques though. They can either be assigned as upgrades to another function or as a passive buff, meaning that you can add effects like adding a bounce to a projectile or making your dog more sturdy. Though you are limited by how much memory the transistor has and how many slots you have open. So you have to be smart about how you assign all your functions.
Turn-based Gameplay Mechanics
The actual moment-to-moment gameplay of Transistor combines action RPG mechanics with real-time strategy. Every enemy encounter is restricted to a set area that you are, then stuck in until you beat all the enemies in that sector. This restraint is where you have to be more strategic about how you approach these encounters. While you have the means to fight the Process, most of your attacks have a very slow and committed wind-up.
Many of the Process move on you faster than Twitter on a new meme, so to compensate, there’s the turn mechanic which freezes time so that you can strategize, plan out your attack… and unleash it in one big flurry of effects. Well, it might not be apparent, this is where the RTS influence comes in. It shifts the gameplay from a regular hack and slash RPG to a more strategic focus: comparing numbers and finding the best places to lay out attacks for optimum effects. The downside of using turn though is that after you use it, you’re left fully open to attacks until the action gauge refills.
Avoiding repetitive choices
So there is some method of using turns. Basically either kill everything in that turn… or back down and hide like a coward until you can use your functions again. By approaching gameplay in this way, the game feels much more involved and innovative, as it lets you play around a lot more with how you deal with confrontations and feels like your choices and how you arrange the functions and use them, are an active part of your long-term success.
A common concern in game design is that even when the player is given an immense variety of ways to play the game, once the player finds the play style or mechanic they can solve almost every problem and has no limitations to it. It eliminates the need to try other ways of playing that might be less efficient unless otherwise forced to… and can make the game boring because of it due to it being repetitive.
Encouragement to act differently
This problem isn’t relevant to every game and player, #Not All Players, but it is common enough that the designers at Supergiant Games were thinking about it when making Transistor. And wanted to avoid players from getting too reliant on just using one or two functions, but didn’t want to hinder their enjoyment by forcing them to use random skills or actively taking away the ones they wanted to use.
With this in mind, that the game was originally going to have more of a card focus similar to something like Magic the Gathering, where the player knows what’s in their deck, but don’t know how they will draw. Meaning, there would have been a lot of focus on improvisation, though the designers couldn’t get the need to shuffle cards to blend naturally with the linear narrative that had already been written instead.
Different Transistor functions and their importance
With the finished version of Transistor, the designers gave the player 16 different functions in the game to mix and match as they wanted and find different ways to use them. This also proved to be somewhat counterintuitive to the previously mentioned problem though, because if there’s no incentive to try new combinations, many players could simply rely on a few of the basic ones all the way through or spam the ones with the highest damage output relentlessly, making the game into another mediocre action RPG.
Get creative with Transistor functions
Two elements were added to the gameplay that are meant to encourage players to try other arrangements of functions. Firstly, when loosing all of your health, instead of getting a “You died” screen, you lose your most upgraded function for a few enemy encounters. This means you have to adapt and try using different functions while the ones you lost cool down.
While some prefer familiarities sticking to the things they know best, the intention of this was for you to try other functions and find creative ways to combine them. You can still have your favorite function that you enjoy powering up for maximum potential, though this can be taken away from you during serious fights with bosses or powerful new Process forcing you to try to adapt and figuring out a way to win without them. So it’s almost better to have a more well-rounded group of functions that you use and being open to trying new ones.
Trying out various scenarios
Aside from this as well as adding in your traditional challenges, they give you different combat scenarios. The other way the designers try to get you to use different combinations of functions is to use the game’s lore as an added incentive. Basically, each function is the trace data of a citizen of Cloudbank. All the information about their backstory and what they were doing prior to being absorbed into the transistor.
Uncovering missing fragments of the Story
A lot of these act as pieces to the overall plot, but they are locked away when you first get them. The only way to get access to each citizen’s entire story is to use their function in the three different ways that you can use them. So say, if you only use Crash as an active function and never attempt to use it as an upgrade to another one, you will never get Red’s complete backstory. Now, this doesn’t mean the player has to do anything or use functions they don’t want to and can simply stick with the functions they like best, but it is an added bonus for those willing to try other ways of playing in finding ways that incentivize experimentation.
The designers gave the gameplay a lot of depth that is just asking for exploration and wards those players that find clever ways to mix and match. But a game is more than just its gameplay functions, despite what some may say.
Main character development
Now let’s take a look at our style and a main character with the transistor – Red. Earlier I stated that Red is a club singer who has lost your voice. I know you’re likely thinking: being mute puts her into the standard “silent protagonist” category that is common in games. A lot of the time a silent protagonist is normally thought of as being a blank slate in the game’s narrative so that they can act as the player’s avatar in the story (which is often the case). This doesn’t mean that a mute protagonist can’t be their own character as well. A character doesn’t need a voice to have a personality and can still convey one through their actions or reactions. So despite being silent, Red is not void of her own personality.
Expressing personality without sounds
In some ways being mute almost highlights her character. While you command what she does in battle and what she votes for when at certain terminals, a distinct personality does reflect through if only slightly. A lot of Red’s characterization comes through in her interactions with the transistor and the messages she leaves in the terminals thorough Cloudbank. For example, just look at the transistor’s reply after they leave Red’s department:
Locked yourself out. How are you gonna…? Oh.
In seeing all the destruction around her, Red knows that things are likely not going to turn out well in her pursuit for the truth and is prepared for that outcome. She’s given multiple chances to escape from Cloudbank and its deconstruction, but Red isn’t willing to lie down or run and hide. Especially if it means that the one trapped in the transistor will be stuck there forever.
Despite all the difficulties she struggles through, she still has the ability to hum a little tune. But the most telling part of Red’s personality actually shows through her relationship with the transistor, or more specifically, the one trapped in it.
Relationships as the main plot drive
It’s a typical thing in stories that the drive of the plot is one character going out to save their Bae or there being an implicit love interest subplot inserted to add emotional depth. Don’t get me wrong, I have no trouble with the love stuff, but it’s interesting that transistor instead focuses on an already established relationship and the main thrust of the story is the two of them trying to stay together during this accident.
Throughout the game you can tell how much the two genuinely care for each other’s well-being: whether it be the transistor pleading with Red to escape and leave the city rather than get to the bottom of what happened (even if it means he’s stuck in the big blue sword). Or red leaving messages on terminals assuring him that she’s still there and we’ll find out who is responsible for all this. She even lovingly holds the transistor after each battle like… how adorable is that. And how the game presents these two in their connection, it makes you want to get to the end of the game – not just to beat some final Big Bad and save the world, but to see what will happen to the two of them.
Building up to the bittersweet ending of the story that may or may not have made me tear up when I first went through it. The journey that is shared between Red and the transistor while wandering through Cloudbank is almost operatic, counting its schemes of relationships, love, and revenge, and especially with how it blends it all together through its music.
Telling the story with music
The music of Transistor is integral to the overall experience of the game. I’m one of those people who typically listen to podcasts or other things when playing games, especially BIG open-world RPGs, where exploration and wandering are the main focus. But with Transistor I will regularly turn everything else off and playing it. Music is so important to the game’s tone and how it tells its story that it’s pretty much vital to it which isn’t by accident. The whole music isn’t simply a dressing on the videogame salad, but instead is a main ingredient in the recipe. And is meant to tie everything together.
Fitting that Red is a club singer, the only time we actually hear her voice is in the songs that are played in the background of the story. The lyrics of these pieces even convey more of Reds personality if you listen to them carefully. The lyrics show Reds more strong-minded nature and her somewhat nihilistic outlook on what’s going on on top of this. The singing itself is phenomenal with singer Ashley Barrett acting as the voice of Red for these pieces. In terms of style, the genre of music for the transistor is an old-world electric post rock. The tone of the soundtrack does have this blend of electric rock with classic lounge music that really suits the aesthetic of the game.
Even becoming warped and muted when Red uses turn and freezes time. And it’s that detailed the audio mixing that really helps in the immersion of the game.
Negative Transistor aspects and things to improve
Despite all my salivating transistor isn’t without its flaws. Well, the turn mechanic is very creative. One issue that you need to learn about when playing it is that it doesn’t take into account how enemies will move during your attacks.
Also, this game is not designed for having a lot of moving sprites at one time. It can handle having many sprites in the background and in the foreground as they’re just moving images, but once there’s a lot of moving pieces on-screen with Red, the framerate takes a major hit cutting down to 2 to 3 frames per second and making me think that it was actually going to crash the system.
It is very uncommon to have a lot of things on the screen at one moment (only happening under very certain circumstances), but it shows that this game wasn’t designed with huge battles in mind.
Lastly, Transistor is only about 6 to 8 hours long. Being on the short side isn’t a bad thing itself, in fact, I appreciate that it doesn’t stretch itself too far for the sake of length, but this also means that the story is rushed in certain places and some later characters don’t get the time they maybe should considering their story weight.
I think it would have been better if the game was an extra hour or two longer just so that the plot could have been elaborated on more and Red’s character could have been developed further than it was.
Regardless of its faults Transistor is still an amazing and unique game that I really wish there was more of. It’s clear that everyone at Supergiant Games is incredibly passionate about their craft and it shows through pretty much every aspect of this game. All of these things that I’ve spent writing over make Transistor something that I think people should really check out, hence the point of this article.
When everything changes, nothing changes.