Transistor – Review Bright Lights, Empty City

The original version of this text was first published on FZ.se. It has been republished here with permission.

Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Supergiant Games
Format: PC
Released: May 20, 2014

I certainly can’t blame Supergiant for choosing to follow the surprising – and well-deserved – success of Bastion with a game steeped in the same mould, and I don’t want this review to get caught up in an endless serious of comparisons between the two. But oh boy, is Transistor not making things easy for me. Its so thoroughly marinated its predecessor’s legacy that it eventually becomes impossible to ignore the smell.

Where Bastion placed us in the remnants of a fallen civilisation, Transistor throws us in right as the supports begin to crumble. We are introduced to Red, a beloved singer in the beautiful cyberpunk city of Cloudbank. In the middle of a performance, Red is attacked in what soon turns out to be the first wave of an invasion by an entity referring to itself as The Process. As she is just about to be killed, a mysterious man with whom she is acquainted sacrifices himself to save her life. As the dust settles, she finds him impaled on a mystical weapon known as the Transistor, which also seems to contain the conciousness of the man who saved her. It turns out that she and her newly acquired, improbably huge sword are Cloudbank’s last hope.

The game’s most notable addition is the turn-based battle system, where you fight in real-time but can choose to freeze time at any point. While in this state you can plan out your movements and actions, effectively queuing up your next few moves in an explosive game of checkers. When you’re ready, simply restart the clock and Red will immediately perform the set of actions you choreographed.

It’s an interesting and satisfying concept, seeing Red completely obliterate waves of enemies before they can barely bat a surprised eye in her direction. Sadly, it has the side-effect of making the game stupidly easy. Since enemies don’t share your time-bending powers you always have a huge advantage to which not even the most powerful bosses can measure up. There is no time limit to planning out your attacks and that you are even told whether or not an attack will hit the target and how much damage it will do. All of this makes it feel like you’re playing Bastion with God Mode turned on. I ran through the game in one five hour long sitting without having to get very familiar with the death screen.

Disappointingly, where Transistor fails the most is in the storytelling. Bastion had one of the greatest video game narratives of all time, dispensing information and character development organically through the gameplay and one of the all-time greatest voice-over performances. Everything there was to know about that game’s universe was something you had to discover yourself, rather than find lying around in diaries and documents. The story of Transistor is almost exclusively found inside datalogs and poorly structured exposition dumps. The gimmick is that you unlock more information about the city, The Process, Red and the characters around her by using different combinations of weapons and items in battle. In theory, this is a clever way of forcing the player to experiment with new setups in order to gain a better understanding of the game’s story. In reality, it holds important story developments ransom until you pointlessly mix and match loadouts you have no interest in otherwise.

Towards the end of the game I had only a vague idea of who the villains were, what their ultimate goal was, or what role Red really played in all of this. When the final scene grasped for my heart-strings it had no effect because I barely felt like I knew anything about the two main characters or their relationship, despite spending the past few hours in their company.

Transistor is the worst kind of disappointment: the kind that makes you question whether the creators’ previous achievements was a fluke. I don’t mean that to sound like it’s a complete disaster, as Transistor offers some smart and enjoyable gameplay in a beautifully presented world, but I just can’t escape the notion that I have already played the best version of this game before.

3/5

Rikard Olsson Written by:

Sweden-born, England-based writer about video games that can otherwise be found on PC Gamer, FZ.se and FeTT Magazine.