There’s something to be said for any game that can spin a story about a struck-dumb singer with a talking sword and provoke an emotional reaction. Transistor, the second title from San Jose’s Supergiant Games, is exactly that; it’s a gorgeous cyberpunk adventure that will confuse, charm, and addict you.
Supergiant’s first game, Bastion, was a breakout indie success that sold millions of copies across almost every platform imaginable. Transistor has three obvious things in common with Bastion: it uses an isometric perspective with beautiful hand-drawn 2D art, it’s an action role-playing game where you level up your character’s abilities through countless battles, and it has a gritty voiceover that serves as your constant accompaniment. And while all these elements are enough to make Bastion fans happy, Supergiant has expanded upon each of them to make Transistor a different, more compelling proposition.
Though the visuals are cut from the same painterly cloth, Transistor hurtles several thousand years in the future beyond Bastion’s fantasy land. The city of Cloudwalk is rendered in a neon watercolor style quite that’s unlike anything else, with Jen Zee’s stunning artwork moving the story along through infrequent static cutscenes. Cloudwalk is a lonely place — it’s been evacuated after becoming overrun by strange creatures known as the Process, and Transistor’s story revolves around getting to the bottom of this invasion. But while the game conveys a deliberate feeling of emptiness, the setting is brought to life by what’s been left behind. You learn about pivotal characters in the city’s past, read news reports about the ongoing disaster, and find kiosks that let you vote on what the weather should be. It’s a vivid, evocative place that you’ll want to learn more about.
Combat is flexible, frantic, and always fun
Transistor expands on Bastion’s core hack-and-slash gameplay — think Diablo, with a pulled-out camera and simple combat — by adding more strategy to the mix. You could play the two games in more or less the same way, in fact, but Transistor’s "turn" system is much more satisfying to use: it lets you freeze the action to plan out a series of quick attacks, which gets handy in the midst of a frenetic battle. "I like to joke that it's a turn-based game where you're the only one who gets to take a turn," said Supergiant’s creative director Greg Kasavin when The Verge first saw Transistor last year, and that just about sums it up; of course, the ability is limited, and you’re left vulnerable for a few seconds after your turn is completed. It’s not used as much as it could be, however. One early puzzle shows how turns could be used outside of combat to manipulate objects in the world, but the idea is abandoned for the rest of the game. It feels like the developers considered doing more with the system before deciding to restrict it to battle sequences.
It’s fortunate, then, that Transistor’s combat is flexible, frantic, and never less than fun. It’s underpinned by a wide array of abilities, known as "functions," that you can mix and match to customize your approach. Your character can equip four at once — one for each face button on the controller — but each function can also be used to boost the primary four. New functions come at a regular pace as you move through the game and level up, leaving you with countless possible combinations to take on the Process. The system is overwhelming at first and it isn’t explained so well, but once worked out it’s a lot of fun to experiment with. Using each function in various capacities also unlocks information about important figures from Cloudwalk; I found this a more rewarding way to learn about the world than digging around in BioShock’s trash cans for audio logs, and it encouraged me to try out as many permutations as possible.
The most divisive element of Transistor, as with Bastion, will be its voiceover. Where Bastion featured Logan Cunningham’s gruff, dynamic narration describing the events that unfurled onscreen, the same actor plays a major role here as the Transistor itself. Your character, Red, has been rendered mute and left in possession of the Transistor, a mysterious glowing sword that talks to her throughout the game — Bastion’s narrator was largely a detached observer, but the Transistor is a fundamental part of this story.
Cunningham’s voice is more whispered and noirish this time around, landing somewhere between Matthew McConaughey in True Detective and Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. It comes across as a little grating and self-conscious at first, but the Transistor turns out to be a sympathetic, reassuring presence as you make your way through the world. And if you play on the PlayStation 4, your controller glows in time with the Transistor’s lines and onscreen patterns, with the option to listen through the integrated speaker. It sounds like a gimmick, but it enhances the feeling of holding this pivotal character in your hand.
You'll wish you could spend more time in Transistor’s bewitching world
Transistor sinks its teeth into you. It’s a slow burner that doesn’t make the best first impression, with poorly-explained mechanics and attempts at intrigue that fall flat until the story opens up. But once the combat and upgrade system click, there’s no letting go. It’s a game you could finish in a single day if you wanted, and I very nearly did that after getting wrapped up in the compulsive need to unlock every function. In fact, that’ll be a problem for some — Transistor is over before you know it and leaves you wanting more. But the tight pacing serves it well, and you can always replay the game to continue building your abilities. That’s just what I did as soon as the credits rolled, aching to spend more time in Transistor’s bewitching world.
Transistor is out today on PlayStation 4 and PC.