Game Review: Transistor

Transistor, an isometric hack-and-slash with a twist from the creators of Bastion, finally came out on Mac. And I played through it. And I had fun.

Was it a good game? I’m not sure.

Transistor’s gameplay is different from other hack-and-slash games in two ways. First, each encounter is separate: when you walk into a certain area, walls go up and you have to eliminate all the enemies before you can continue. Second, there’s a gimmick: your character is pretty underpowered on her own, but she has a “planning mode” where she can queue up several actions to accomplish at lightning speed. The result feels like a combination of the blockbuster-style Sherlock Holmes1 and a bit of Jade’s slow-mo from the game Beyond Good & Evil. That part was fun.

Another cool gimmick is the equipment system. Every “function” you collect (usually by leveling up) can be used in one of three ways: an active slot for a new attack or action, a passive slot for an always-on enhancement, or as an upgrade to one of your active slots, augmenting the ability in some way. That leads to many different combinations and strategies to try.

I will say that (for me at least) the game’s default mode ended up being too easy. It took me a while to realize that I was supposed to use the “limiters” I was given to make the game more challenging. (These are like equipment, but boost the enemy rather than the player, with a reward of a small bit of extra experience points.) Even with that, though, I found that the game became harder without exactly being more challenging or more fun…although maybe I just wasn’t good at “hard mode”.

It wouldn’t matter so much if the combat were easy-but-fun (which it was) as long as there were still good stories and puzzles. However…there really weren’t. The entire game was almost completely linear; where it wasn’t you still had to take both paths eventually; and there were no puzzles at all. The story could have been engaging, but wasn’t…partially because the world-building didn’t quite work for me, and partly because it had a bit of an anticlimax, ending with not all questions answered. And the linearity in plot was frustrating; there were many places where the designers could have put in a choice—even one that wouldn’t really affect the rest of the game—but didn’t.

I screwed up a bit here on my first play-through: I assumed my actions on the city’s computer system would have consequences, and so I generally laid low. But the main character’s shtick is that her voice has been stolen by the Bad Guys, so she can only communicate by typing things in on the terminals…and it turns out it doesn’t affect the game at all. So the second time through I chose to do as much as I could…but it still only helped a little. The protagonist, Red, still isn’t a very fleshed-out character: she’s a singer-turned-badass-fighter and she cares a lot about her significant other, but that’s about all we get.

Why does this bother me? After all, games from Pokémon to Portal have a silent protagonist, or a protagonist with just a bit of backstory. In Red’s case, though, it’s that (a) I was hoping she’d be an actual female character instead of just a female avatar, and (b) you get to learn an awful lot of her significant other’s personality—he’s the one talking for most of the game. Of the bad guys, you hear two of four of them speak; the one woman is not one of the two.2 So…yeah. A bit disappointed.

The visuals were nice, including some pretty stylized artwork for cut scenes, but nothing too special. But it was the music that made me excited to play this game: the previous game, Bastion, had an excellent soundtrack, matching its frontier theme with a sort of “country-style trip-hop” plus some very authentic original folk songs. Transistor’s vaguely-cyberpunk theme, though, gave it some nice electronic-ish music and some more songs-with-lyrics (with the same vocalist, Ashley Barrett, in addition to the same composer, Darren Korb). It even worked musical changes into the gameplay. But it just didn’t grab me the same way Bastion’s did.

(Even so, it’s still a good soundtrack.3)

What else about Bastion? Of course I couldn’t help comparing the games—they have the same basic play style and even a similar set-up (end-of-the-world scenario). I think I ended up liking Bastion better in pretty much every respect, though: continuous encounters rather than separate ones, better world-building, more interesting characters4, much cooler narration, more enjoyable art, better music, and a more satisfying ending (if still gimmicky).

So, in summary: Transistor is easy but fun but not super memorable, with a nifty equipment system and a nifty combat system and a pretty good soundtrack. It’s not too long, either. Maybe pick it up on sale at some point.

  1. My opinion of the movie itself has soured in retrospect, but I still like the idea of a more frenetic, tormented Holmes rather than the fine Victorian gentleman we usually see. ↩︎

  2. On the other hand, points for implying that two of the male bad guys are married without actually making it a point of interest one way or the other. ↩︎

  3. And one other cool thing Supergiant Games does is release sheet music for their games: Transistor, Bastion↩︎

  4. …though a lot of Bastion’s character development came from bonus content “survival challenge” areas. ↩︎