If Transistor isn’t the best game I’ve played all year, it’s certainly the most beautiful. I’m still looking to see if there’s anyway I can take the game on a date. Half-jokes aside, Supergiant Game’s second outing is engrossing and impressive. Gone are the days of Bastion’s oil painted calamity and in is a dystopian sci-fi fantasy rich in saturated color and unabashed coolness. It’s one of those games you have to try not to like. It doesn’t go out of its way to accomplish this, but instead leans back on a strong conviction in its own elegance.
Ultimately, Transistor imprints you with its amplified aesthetic, weaving its complex circuits into the same emotional and cognitive centers that activate an arresting response when watching a sunset.
Transistor begins like all proper epics, in medias reis, or in the middle of things. This plot device is a telling decision, one that fits into the tale’s less-is-more-approach and neo-noir styling. The game opens to a neon-cyan sword asking our heroine, Red, to pull it out of a corpse. This catalyzes a layered mixture of elements, which operate in harmony to serve up an engaging story. That’s not to say that the narrative is harmoniously told, as the storytelling is fragmented and underexposed (in the best way), but all the different story components serve to reinforce one another.
The story does not tell. It shows and makes you dig for clues. Transistor’s plot and character development are not for the lazy. It’s not difficult in any avant-garde sense, but it asks you unfold and peek between the lines to infer the narrative’s finer details.
You want to learn more about the characters? Try out different weapon loadouts to unlock prosaic character bios. Want to get an understanding of Cloudbank’s political and social landscape? Explore a bit and interact with the terminals. In this way, the narrative becomes intertwined with gameplay, making you work for a deeper grasp of character and context rather than serve it up on a silver-screen platter. This attitude affords the game’s story the potential to become inexhaustible.
I’m still not quite sure if the story is a mess or not and, frankly, I don’t care. The impressions are there and the main plot points shine through with clarity, giving you the vitals. Even with a graphic novel feel, Transistor refuses to use heavy exposition, eschewing infodumps in favor of nuance. What matters here is the affection, the sweeping feels, not the nitpicky details.
These feelings are generated through a highly concentrated and potent aesthetic that envelops every part of the game. This small team should be proud of the testament to collaboration and multi-media artistry Transistor represents. The music is the obvious lead in the group, with its intoxicating rhythms, eerie yet alluring guitar riffs, and, of course, Ashely Barret’s sultry voice.
You’ll likely first fall in love with the palatable visuals, and what I’m gonna call a cyber-Victorian theme, as cyberpunk it is not. This creative intensity extends to the game design, the writing, the UI (some of the sexiest menus ever, I’m not joking), and the direction. Shit, I have a feeling if you took a gander at code it would be gorgeous.
Each team member has obviously worked in concert to realize a precise vision that exudes so much passion and life you can almost see blood flowing through its virtual veins.
The heart of this game, and the game part of the game, is the combat. Playing somewhat like a really refined version of Ni Nu Kuni’s active/turn-based battle system, Transistor’s combat accomplishes one of its greatest feats: Making someone who (for the most part) abhors turn-based gameplay, cherish and enjoy the methodical planning. You can mix and match, real-time and turn-based, and this all done quite gracefully, making you think about space, time, and resources in thoughtful ways. The battling encourages creativity, allowing you to take any ability and use it at as main weapon, upgrade, or passive buff in seemingly infinite combinations.
Supergiant Games is well aware of their pacing—kill things, story, kill things, story, kill things, and so on. Instead of hide it or deny it, they embrace and force themselves to design dynamism into the flow. The combat never grows stagnant due to the seemingly infinite fusion of abilities, “limiters” or self-imposed restrictions that make the game more rewarding but difficult, and the game’s inspired response to consequence.
There is a condition for death in the game, but before that you are punished with losing one of your 4 active abilities until you reach two more checkpoints. Besides raising the stakes, this mechanic forces the player to use limited powers and craft loadouts outside their comfort zone. The weapons and battle scenarios are so balanced and thought out that this all works smoothly. It’s simply another well played instrument in a talented orchestra.
There’s a popular argument that video games are the ultimate medium, as they combine the best parts of all the major art forms: Literature, music, art, film, etc. I’ve never really bought into this argument.
Transistor, however, gives credence to this claim in its masterful amalgamation of disparate constituents. Nothing showcases the game’s multimedia prowess better than the way in which it will have you willingly unlocking non-game content because the quality is so high or provide you with interactions that produce no measurable benefit. Instead, Transistor uses these moments to increase the volume of pleasure, deepening a winsome experience.