As we embark on our second playthrough of Super Giant Games's sophomore effort, Transistor, we do so with much more enthusiasm than we felt during our first hours of the initial session. Not because we weren't excited to experience the adventures of voiceless singer Red in Cloudbank City, but rather because Transistor is a game that it takes a little getting to know well before it lets you in on its secrets. In an effort to innovate and change many of the principles we've grown accustomed to, perhaps Super Giant went a little too far and forgot about making the player feel in full control.
It's not that the game is overly challenging. We only died once during that first playthrough (mainly, because we went overboard with the limiters - more on that later), it's rather that the complexity and depth of the systems aren't fully revealed until we're half-way through the game and when we've really warmed up to it the game is over. Then again it's a game that was always designed for multiple playthroughs. It's even built into the narrative and theme of the game.
There is something almost postmodern about Transistor. There is no main menu. You simply start the game from the start screen, it autosaves as you go along and you cannot manually save a file or load it. At the start of the game we find the main character - Red - a singer who has lost her voice, next to a body with a giant talking sword sticking out of it. You pick up the sword and off you go. Cloudbank City is being wiped from existence courtesy of the Process, a viral infection brought down by an elusive group known as The Camerata. Red won't take the sword's (Transistor) advice to leave town, but instead sets out to find the members of The Camerata as the city is crumbling, to exact revenge. There is no rollercoaster of a plot here, it's pretty straight forward story of revenge, and you learn more about the characters involved as Transistor absorbs their essence or soul if you will.
If you've played Super Giant Games' first title, Bastion, you'll be familiar with the narrative technique. Transistor comments on certain things you do, while leading you on your way. If you happen to stray or take a wrong turn, he'll let you know. In addition to the narration that takes place as you journey through Cloudbank City, there is also additional tidbits you find at terminals throughout the place and you unlock background files on the characters by using their associated functions (skills) in various ways.
The narration is accompanied by wonderfully jazzy tunes that makes for a soundscape that ranks among the best in video games. Even if Transistor is a visual tour de force, we'd go as far as saying you're better off playing this game blindfolded rather than with the sound muted.
It's a predictably dark story, but it's one that never offers any dramatic highs or lows, we're sort of just jogging along at the same pace throughout the journey. That said, we really appreciate the narrative technique and how everything feels carefully thought out.
If the story is somewhat uneventful, it's the combat that will keep you coming back for more. While it's difficult to get into at first, there's tremendous depth as the combat evolves with each function you unlock. There are 14 functions (or skills) in total and you can place them in an active slot (an attack or skill you use either in real-time or queue up during the tactical phase), a passive slot providing you with a boost or an upgrade to an active skill that tweaks how that skill works. This allows for tremendous variation between four active slots with two upgrade slots each and four passive slots. The active skills are mapped to the face buttons and can be used both in real-time or during the turn-based phase of combat. Examples of functions are Cull that sends your enemy flying up in the air with a powerful attack, Jaunt that sees you dart quickly away from enemies, Mask that triggers cloaking and Bounce that sees you launch an attack that bounces on to nearby targets. Add to this a system of limiters that allow for quicker XP gain, while giving a distinct disadvantage in combat. There's a lot to get to grips with and since it's a rather unique system it takes a little getting used to.
Another reason why it's difficult to get into Transistor is the fact that it doesn't make use of the traditional HP and Mana bars. Sure there is HP, but you never see the actual numbers and the main concern in losing health is that one of your functions will overload if it hits zero, severly crippling your offensive efforts.
Super Giant Games clearly opted against forcing the player to start out the game with a tutorial, instead there are Backdoors spread out in the city that lets you access some sort of dreamy vacation island with doors that lead to challenges. As these challenges are unlocked you'll be introduced to a number of upcoming functions and you're also given tasks that require precise actions (speed tests, planning tests), when you reach your third backdoor you're given access to a test room where you can freely switch around your functions (typically you have to do this at terminals inside the game world) and so you can come up with new combinations. We would have preferred to have been free to switch functions around on the fly, but seeing as overloaded functions are your penalty for not doing well it makes sense even if it's a little cumbersome.
Super Giant Games avoids the dreaded sophomore slump, and Transistor is certainly a game any fan of turn-based tactical RPGs should take a closer look at. It's beautiful, memorable, highly replayable, deep, stellar from a sound perspective, but ultimately falls just short of the high bar set by Bastion. Maybe it will grow even more on us by the time we set out on our third playthrough, but this is where it lands today.
We played Transistor on PlayStation 4 for review purposes. All review screens have been captured with the built-in "share" functionality.