Quick Review: Transistor

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So, I just burned through Transistor in about six hours, and it was pretty cool. My biggest complaint about the game, is that it’s smaller and shorter than I think it needed to be. While it does consist entirely of battles, in-between narrative bits, the combat system is very fleshed out, and evolves consistently throughout the game, providing new challenges. It easily could’ve run for another few hours without getting stale, and that’s with me having played about half of the optional challenge missions which get incredibly difficult after a while.

Because the game has so many challenge missions and has a sort of new game plus mode, I do think you could get your money’s worth out of it by continuing to play; but I don’t think that the story felt so tight or complete in its run time that it necessitated the game to be so short. The intentionally-vague writing leaves a lot of unanswered questions in the end, and the story takes place over such a short period of time, with so little that really happens, that it feels like either the climax of a story we didn’t get to hear, or the prologue of one yet to be told.

Every review of this game inevitably compares it to the studio’s last game, Bastion, not only because that game was insanely popular, but because Transistor shares almost exactly the same structure right down to the voice acting, with only the overall tone and mechanics being changed. Personally, I didn’t care for Bastion all that much, but I was happy to see that all of the problems I had with that game were fixed in Transistor.

Bastion’s weapon levelling system and limit of how many weapons you could use at once meant that it was hard to utilize the full breadth of your capabilities in the span of the game, or even learn what a lot of your weapons could do–plus, the battle system was simplistic to begin with. Transistor has more unique and involving combat, with a system of combining attack powers to create a huge variety of ways to go about each encounter. It begs to be experimented with, and if you got really into it, I could see pouring a considerable amount of time into mastering it.

The game also lets you sort of manage your difficulty on the fly, as every time you level up you unlock an optional handicap for the enemies, which makes the game harder for you, but gives you a small experience boost. With about three or four of these turned on, the game was hard enough to necessitate real strategizing in every battle. There’s also a mechanic where, instead of dying when your health runs out, one of your skills gets deactivated for the next battle or two. This could be frustrating when I lost some of my favorite powers, but it also forced me to learn to use powers that I might not have before, which was cool.

Most of the game’s storyline comes through dialog from the consciousness trapped inside of your transistor talking endlessly throughout, but there are also tidbits about some of the town’s residents learned when you absorb their consciousness. Each of these townspeople corresponds to one of the transistor’s powers, and as you combine these powers, you learn more about the characters. This was a neat way of joining the story and combat together, so that the game’s two components felt cohesive.

Another problem I had with Bastion was that, while the artwork looked nice, the world lacked any sort of visual cohesion, and I never had a sense of where I was, despite the fact that the narrator kept giving me details about the town. Transistor is much better about this, with a setting that actually feels like a place, and has a more clear atmosphere to it. Both are games where the apocalypse is pretty much unfolding one step ahead of you, so everywhere you go, everyone seems to have just died before you got there. However, while Transistor’s world is more sensical, it still feels overly sparse and barren–which I know is part of the point, but I think if we got to see some signs of the life which had only just vacated the premises, it would’ve felt more resonant, as well as more eerie.

Transistor’s awesome jazzy soundtrack, red-haired songstress of a lead character, and endless scenes of high-rise, high-tech villas, give it a distinct cyber-noir mystique, without feeling too much like any other fictional world. As much as I love Bladerunner, it’s nice to for once see a cyber-noir fic that doesn’t borrow from that movie’s iconography. It’s hard to get a complete sense of what this world is like from the ultra-sparse and vague details that the game provides, but there’s a strong theme of data and categorical processing, and signs of a utopian post-scarcity society, possibly in some kind of hostile environment that requires there to be a digital sky. It uses genre tropes sparingly as tips for the imagination to invent the city on your own terms, which is kind of cool, but I still would’ve liked to know more. At times, some of the descriptions of things made me think that the game might literally take place inside of a computer, and by the end I still can’t say for sure if that’s the case.

Altogether, while I found a lot of Transistor’s themes interesting, such as uploading the human consciousness into the transistor, changing the nature of the world through electronics, and the general feel of its cyber-noir universe, the game does too little with any of these themes to make me think about it once I’ve put the controller down. Besides the combat system and overall aesthetic, I’d say the game is pretty unmemorable. If you were really gripped by Bastion’s storyline, you might find the one in Transistor a bit of a letdown, and again, as cool as the combat is, you’d have to replay the game and do a lot of the challenges for it to leave much of an impact, as the uber-short campaign barely has time to utilize it. I do recommend this game, but at the twenty-dollar price point, you should be ready to play through it more than once to really feel like you’re getting your money’s worth.

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