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Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Supergiant Games
Release Date: May 20, 2014


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PS4 Review - 'Transistor'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on May 29, 2014 @ 4:30 a.m. PDT

Transistor is a sci-fi themed action RPG that invites you to wield an extraordinary weapon of unknown origin as you fight through a futuristic city.

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Transistor tells the story of Red, who's a singer in the town of Cloudbank. A group known as the Camerata attempt to kill Red using a weapon known as the Transistor, but something went wrong, and all they managed to do was steal her voice and trap her beloved within the weapon, which is now in Red's possession. Red sets out with the Transistor to destroy the Camerata and perhaps find a way to return her true love to his own body. All the while, an invasion of creatures known as The Process threatens to overwhelm Cloudbank and destroy the city and everyone in it.

While Transistor has a distinctive setting, it takes a back seat to the protagonist's narrative. A number of elements of the world and plot remain obscure, and there are a lot of details that are up to interpretation. Despite that, the core is surprisingly well told. Red is rendered mute, but that doesn't prevent her from having a personality and character arc. Her story is mostly told through Transistor's comments, her body language, and a few posts on the city's Internet forum. The last is an interesting bit of subtle storytelling. Red's messages are written in real time, and you see her make errors, reword lines, and in some cases erase what she was going to say and settle on something different. On occasion, she uses it to communicate with the man inside the Transistor. On the other hand, the Transistor is more static and one-note. It's a narrator and stand-in voice for Red rather than an actual character, and the plot emphasizes that he has little agency or power. I found it compelling, but it's very easy for the game to go too far and feel too oblique or poorly structured to hold your attention.

Given its resemblance to Bastion, it's easy to approach Transistor like an action-RPG, but looks can be deceiving. Transistor is much more of a straight RPG and is far closer to something like Parasite Eve. During combat, you move around and use your powers, but the powers have some drawback, such as being low-damage or having an incredibly long windup. It's possible to fight enemies like this, including using combinations of skills to turn it into a rough action game with dodging and action-based combat, but that isn't the core of the combat system. The correct way to handle combat is to use your Turn ability.

When you activate Turn, time stops for everyone but Red. During this time, you can move around or queue up attacks. Each step you take or action you queue takes up a specific chunk of your meter. Once you've run out of Turn or decide to stop, you end the time freeze, and Red instantly performs every action you've queued. This is one of the most reliable forms of offense and defense in the game. Actions used in Turn have combo effects that you can't use during regular movement. For example, your basic Crash ability stuns an enemy, causing other attacks to do extra damage. You can also use this defensively to avoid enemy attacks or reposition yourself so enemies can't retaliate afterward.

The danger is that once you're done with Turn, you have to wait for it to recharge before you can attack again. All of your offensive abilities are locked at that point, but you retain access to defensive abilities, such as your dodge-dash Jaunt or the self-cloaking Mask. Early on, Turn is a hindrance because you sacrifice damage for a long period of vulnerability, but as the game progresses, you get special abilities that allow you to negate or overcome Turn's weaknesses. You can reduce the cooldown, unlock the ability to use offensive abilities during cooldown, or alter your dodge or stealth abilities to perform some offense. No matter what, you're going to more vulnerable during the cooldown period.

The ability to customize attacks is a big part of what makes Transistor fun to play. You have a series of active abilities and can have up to four equipped, with each bound to a specific face button. You begin with two active abilities but quickly unlock more. A few are gained when you absorb them from dead bodies, but the rest are gradually handed over as you level up. Each ability has its own niche and attack, and each can also function as a secondary or a passive ability.

Secondary abilities are unlocked when you equip an ability on an active ability to power it up. For example, equipping Jaunt with the Spark ability causes it to toss a series of bombs every time you attack. Initially, you can equip one secondary ability per active ability, but you unlock a second slot for each of the four main skills. If an ability is used a secondary power-up, you can't use it as an active ability — at least until you finish the game once or unlock second copies of abilities.

Finally, each ability can also be equipped in a passive slot, which grants you a simple bonus. For example, Ping doubles the amount of steps you can move while in Turn, and Crash renders you immune to slowing effects. Each passive ability is relatively less powerful than an active ability, but they add up quickly. You're not going to get much in the way of new weapons or armor, so if you want to increase defenses, you'll need to assign your passive skills properly.

The limit on your abilities is Memory. Each ability takes up a set amount of Memory regardless of whether it's active, secondary or passive. You begin with 16 Memory, but you can eventually increase it as you level up. Even when you're maxed out, you have to pick and choose what you want to equip. The other risk to your abilities is that your active abilities are also your extra lives. Should you suffer lethal damage, you instantly enter Turn and have a chance to escape, but if Turn is recharging, you'll Overload. This restores your health but instantly destroys the active ability with the most Memory invested in it. This ability remains inaccessible for a number of checkpoints, but you have the option of replacing it at the next checkpoint. Run out of active abilities, and the game is over.

The cool thing about Transistor is that you can play it pretty much however you want. You can maximize your damage in Turn, emphasize your mobility, focus on the speed at which Turn recharges, fortify yourself to outlast enemies, or focus on doing damage without using Turn at all. There are a huge number of skills, and each can be combined in a bunch of different ways. For a good chunk of the game, I used Bounder with Purge and Void, and this gave me an attack to use outside Turn that did lots of damage to large crowds of enemies but was less effective against single targets.

Transistor has a pretty good variety of enemies. Every foe has a different tactic. Young ladies clone themselves when attacked and can avoid your attacks unless you're careful to specialize your damage. Cheerleaders can't attack directly but buff enemies with impenetrable shields. Each enemy upgrades over the course of the game to gain additional powers and abilities, so the enemy types at the start of the game are not the same as at the end. Defeating enemies causes them to turn into Cells, which must be collected within a time limit or they'll respawn. It adds some extra tension since you have to balance charging into an enemy-infested area to recover a Cell or killing the same enemy again.

The biggest issue with Transistor's combat system is that you get as much out of it as you put into it. The variety and choice in your weapon selection is fantastic. You can create everything from a high-damage brawler to an invisible speedy rogue who poisons the enemy. Once you've found a comfortable niche, you can remain there for the entire game if you choose, similar to Bastion. Certain high-damage abilities can one-shot everything that isn't a boss, and that can lead to the game feeling repetitive after a while. The game gives you plenty of encouragement to use different moves. Each ability has background and history that is only unlocked if you swap your character move set, but there's nothing that forces you to deviate from something that works.

Like Bastion, there are some options to artificially inflate the game's difficulty. Limiters alter enemy capabilities, and they're unlocked as you level up and can be equipped at any checkpoint. They may cause enemy Cells to be shielded so they must be damaged before they can be attacked, double the number of enemies on the field, increase the damage they deal, reduce your Memory, cause Overloads to take out multiple abilities at once, and so on. Each equipped Limiter increases the amount of experience you gain after a fight in exchange for making the game noticeably harder. It's a nice way to allow you to tailor the difficulty level, like the Idols in Bastion. Transistor also features a New Game+ mode, Recursion mode, which features more difficult enemy spawns and some new content. Finally, there are special Challenge rooms that give you pre-defined ability loadouts and challenge you to finish them to unlock music and rewards. It isn't quite enough to overcome the game's low difficulty level, but it keeps it fun to play since a single playthrough will take around five hours.

Transistor is a beautiful game that's dripping with style. The artwork and environments are breathtaking, and the painted art aesthetic makes it a delight to watch in motion. The style is simultaneously reminiscent of film noir and the inside of a computer, and at no point was I bored with the environments or character designs. The visuals are sometimes broken up by large still artwork that looks great and conveys a lot of personality and style.

The star of the game is the soundtrack. Amazing music, both instrumental and vocal, sets the mood and tone of the game. Red can even pause to hum along with the background track. Logan Cunningham returns to voice The Transistor, and he does a surprisingly good job differentiating the voice from the one he used in Bastion, thoughthe Transistor isn't as instantly lovable as Rucks. If I had one complaint, it's that the constant narration falls a bit flat. It worked in Bastion because it was a narrator telling a story. Here, it's more that the Transistor is a chatty hunk of metal. It doesn't sour the experience, but it feels more forced.

Transistor is an early contender for one of the most engaging games of the year. It isn't Bastion 2, since it's more of a straight RPG than an action game, and the tone, characters and setting are quite different. It manages to craft an engaging and exciting RPG experience mixed with a simple but curiously enticing story, and its biggest sin is being over too soon. It won't necessarily appeal to all of Bastion's fans, but Transistor shows that Supergiant Games isn't just a one-hit wonder and is capable of crafting an entirely different kind of game experience that is still exciting and delightful.

Score: 8.5/10

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