Certain games thrive on their impressive technical elements or their simplified yet addictive gameplay. Others present you with a unique, immensely creative universe, into which you unreservedly dive, intent on learning more about that world and its characters. Transistor falls into the latter category. Full of an original artistic style that pervades the entire adventure from start to finish, and combined with an innovative gameplay system that blends real-time and turn-based, this one is a joy.
Such games can be beautiful, even if they’re not going for ultra-realistic visuals and authentic facial expressions. While many of the big-budget blockbusters continue to strive for unparalleled interactive believability, some of the smaller adventures rely on the developer’s singular vision. Transistor is wonderfully imaginative and colorful, complete with excellent world and character design. I’m not really into the sci-fi palettes but I’ll make an exception in this case, because the designers give the game a flair, a panache that you just don’t find anywhere else.
Sure, some of the special effects are slick, and the cleanliness of the production is undeniable. Again, though, this is more about the artist’s vision than it is about the programmer’s skill. The audio complements the artistic achievements with a score that keeps us involved in the action, and lends a mystical aura to our fantastical surroundings. Last I checked, that’s what an effective soundtrack does. The voices, Red’s and the narrator’s, are excellent and decidedly haunting. The rest of the sound presentation is just as slick as the graphical display, which means the game exudes this consistently engaging style.
This is the story of Cloudbank, a futuristic civilization that isn’t entirely about robots and lasers. That’s what I dislike most about sci-fi: It’s typically very cold, sometimes even sterile and as a result, entirely uninteresting to me. However, I was immediately drawn to Transistor because art blends with technology; for instance, the protagonist, Red, is a nightclub singer. The only problem is that Cloudbank is at the whim of a mysterious, powerful organization and “the process” is starting to take over. The residents of Cloudbank are suffering and Red, robbed of her vocal cords, is out to solve a mystery and settle a score.
The narrator drives you through the adventure, lending an even more surreal tone to the quest. It’s this strange yet oddly appealing atmosphere that continues to suck you in, begging you to learn more about the landscape and heroine. And so you begin— you start by obtaining a huge sword that Red can barely carry, and you’ll soon find that when battling elements of “the process,” you’re routinely outmatched. So, what to do? Well, Red has an ability called Turn and it does exactly what it says; it lets you freeze time and plan your attack. When you’re ready, the executed plan will happen quickly and hopefully, Red will still be standing.
It’s as if the developers wanted to fuse elements of turn-based strategy games with real-time action adventures, and that’s no easy feat. Supergiant does a great job of it, though, as the game really does test both your mental and physical dexterity. As you push forward, you will earn various abilities – dubbed Functions – that will greatly assist Red in her determined campaign. There are 16 Functions overall and obviously, some are more powerful than others. There are those that grant Red simple attacks and movement bonuses, while others are very specific, such as the one that turns foes into friends. Combining these Functions is the key to success.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “If I can stop the action whenever I want, plan out my attack carefully, and use my skills to great effect, where’s the challenge?” Well, the developer thought of that, too, because you really have to stay on your toes. Some of your enemies are tougher than you might initially believe, and not everything always goes to plan. For example, your Turn phase might end suddenly, thereby thrusting you back into a potentially deadly situation. This uncertainty can be somewhat frustrating, though, especially if you’re more of a strategy buff. Action aficionados may welcome it but the micromanagers are already cursing the idea, I know.
Concerning the storyline, it’s intriguing and even somewhat melancholy. Each Function you receive comes from a fallen Cloudbank resident, and a comprehensive file comes with each Function. This file details the individual in question and you’re immediately interested in this mysterious person’s existence. When you start playing around with your active and passive slots, you find yourself wondering about the fallen citizen’s life, and how you’re essentially using their inherent traits to your advantage. This makes for a well-rounded, artistically-driven adventure that hits multiple complex notes throughout.
My only problem is that so much more could’ve been done with every element of the production. The storyline has all sorts of promise and could’ve been built upon, the skill system and overall gameplay mechanic is nicely balanced and interesting, but it could’ve been much deeper, and the world could’ve been even more involving. I think what really frustrates me is that given more resources, Supergiant could’ve produced a downright amazing – maybe even a landmark – title. Everyone loves to fawn all over indie games and this is a good example of the creativity we often see in the indie space. But fewer resources is never a good thing.
All in all, the stellar concept and artistic style of Transistor is nigh-on unparalleled. The mystical aura surrounding and permeating the entire game is original and attractive, the blending of real-time and turn-based gameplay is inspired (and yeah, it works exceedingly well), and there’s a surprising amount of humanity injected into this otherwise sci-fi presentation. I don’t like some of the stumbling blocks they purposely throw in your way, as they speak more to the action side of the game (and I prefer the strategic side), and above all else, the potential of the game is just so much…more.
Well, at any rate, play it. You’ll see what I mean but you won’t be disappointed.
The Good: Beautiful, highly imaginative art style. Nicely balanced and presented throughout. Interesting, mystical story. Solid, clean control. Intriguing gameplay mechanic that rewards mental and physical skill.
The Bad: Not long enough. More could’ve been done with every positive element.
The Ugly: “No ‘ugly’ here; just a unique creative flair.”
5/28/2014 Ben Dutka