Supergiant Games have an unmistakable style that bloomed fully in Transistor. For all the heavy colors and creative designs in Bastion, there was always going to be a hurdle of “Yeah, but can you do it again?” That’s an unfortunate stand-by in a gaming community that’s constantly looking for another chapter to never ending stories that may or may not exist in the first place.
In a remarkable display, Supergiant hit back even harder with a story, sense of scale, and gameplay set within their own bittersweet opera. Transistor is a string of melodic harmonizing that hums along your heart strings as much as it does your eyes and thumbs.
You are an influential singer and performer named Red who awakens to the tragic loss of her love and a radical deconstruction of the city around her. The nameless male partner has been captured within the titular Transistor sword that retains his voice and essence, helping her to escape the futuristic-techno city of Cloudbank and the spreading influence of The Process.
The visual design of Bastion felt light on the marriage between personality and functionality. I didn’t believe that the creatures I was being threatened by actually served a full purpose beyond being shooting-gallery fodder. Transistor makes up for that in spades. The Process are form and function taken to radical extremes, their singular purpose being to enact a full reset on a world that has grown too vast. Their designs evolve with time, giving them a cold efficiency that a biologically-adept machine race should have to feel fully threatening.
Beyond them are The Camerata, Cloudbank’s diverse spire of political and social influencers that prove integral in much of Red’s journey. Their depth elicits a range of emotions tantamount to the best groups of enemies in television shows given seasons to develop. You could despise the members for their arrogance while fully believing their tears at such a doomsday coming to their doorstep. Cloudbank is a home for them as it is for Red and the nameless others, and to have it suffer so much gives them a conflict that echoes your own throughout.
Red’s journey is such a loving tragedy that it stings with an addictive venom. She, as a singer by trade, has had her precious voice stolen, leaving the Transistor’s smooth voice as the main communicator of what both of them are feeling. Even still, she communicates through humming the songs that have calmed troubled waters before and won the attention of Cloudbank. You feel the times when her plangent tones have shifted social power and maybe even could’ve changed the world, and you feel the pain of her having such a gift stolen away.
Supergiant Games uses very clever humor and avenues to develop the personality for both of these characters. Intermittent terminals will give Red the chance to type in questions that the Transistor answers, or to order a disgusting-sounding sandwich to her apartment. Posters and exposition help imaginations fill formerly-busy boardwalks to the brim with apparitions for contrast to the deserted reality. Even common people are given legends and personalities. No characters ever feel like one-offs or piecemeal seagueways, one of my favorite aspects of shows like The Last Airbender compressed and retooled for this amazing world.
Transistor also features a unique use of power for the sword’s many abilities in a strategic, metered approach. While you can use your abilities one at a time, you’re encouraged to comprise a hotbar of four commands based upon your level and collected skills and stack them for each encounter. You’ll approach The Process isometrically with a time stop ability, giving each of your movements a section of a full meter to use in order to stack as much damage as possible before having a recharge time.
Despite this being the only real wrinkle, the depth Transistor gives you keeps the system feeling fresh for the full experience. You have abilities that use little room and cause little damage like Ping up to massive damagers like Cull, but their flexibility and special abilities are where the depth comes from. Plugging Ping into a secondary slot allows for the main function to be used regardless of the cooldown state, giving you an unlimited defensive shield for keeping select enemies at bay. I used devastating debuffs and offensive combinations such as three helpings of Void mixed with Cull with a Load passive near the end of the game that vaporized Process machinations.
Each of the functions that enter the Transistor comes with a person’s story and further lore as well. These strong spirits make more of their past transmittable to english for Red and the player to read as their functions rotate through the main, passive, and upgrade slots. This compounds that bittersweet feel of Cloudbank with everyone having variably happy stories up until the point that The Process swallowed their bodies into their massive reset machine.
Leveling in Transistor serves as only slight window dressing because of how linear the game is in reality. You won’t have but a handful of opportunities to wander off the beaten path and “level” with the exception being the Sandbox that includes some challenge rooms for extra XP. This is a nice distraction, but I question the inclusion of leveling at all when the stats could come just as easily from dropped Process minions. The illusory numbers and bars don’t have much of a place with so much being mandatory.
I’m not going to be able to help myself any longer, so I must state fully here that the music in Transistor is the absolute best. It transcends what a video game soundtrack and OST can be, melding them together with both tragedy and love. This is the first time since Snake Eater that I can remember the music being so ingrained with the characters, and this one is in a literal sense. You can feel Red’s desire to sing these full songs – literally, if you hit the L1 button. All she can do is hum her beautiful music, and that gives each track a weight I’m not sure any other game could ever achieve.
However middling my thoughts of Bastion remain, Transistor blew away any doubts I had of Supergiant Games’ ability to marry every piece of gameplay and story together. As a love story, a piece of gameplay, an example of world design, and more, it’s a powerhouse in a small package. This is a landmark in independant game design that, by its very nature, won’t ever receive the attention it deserves or the look-alikes it could support.
Well, here’s me doing my small part to always help the world remember Transistor exists as an amazing, timeless monument in a breathtaking land.