Underrated Games: Transistor

Meet Supergiant Games’ spiritual successor to Bastion: Transistor. Since its release in 2014, the sci-fi adventure has kept to itself, hiding beneath the radar (I don't know how exactly, have you seen all the neon?). Transistor has the same isometric style that made Bastion so striking, but the sun drenched fields and islands have been replaced. A sleepy city is slowly being erased by the mysterious forces who constructed it. So if you haven’t already, now’s the time to check it out. Grab a sword, an over-sized coat, and a couple of hours worth of patience – you’ll need them all.
“You should play it, you’ll like it!” Now the thing is, I’ve heard that before (I’m sure you have too). Usually, it ends with me caving in, playing whatever’s been recommended to me, then wondering if it’s all been a bad practical joke at my expense. But Transistor is different, and that’s the point.

It takes a while to get used to. The isometric style can be difficult to wrap your head around (especially later in the game), and the time-freezing combat definitely takes a bit of practice. I resolved myself to stick with it, seeing as it wasn’t my usual gaming cup of tea. I like free-roamers and choice based RPGs, whereas Transistor is rigidly linear – but again, that’s exactly the point. The more you play, the more you realise that every element of the game, be it the combat, the straightforward adventure, or even the colour palette of the background, is a part of the narrative.
Transistor is an individual experience, and one that doesn’t take up too much time. Your average playthrough is around 4-5 hours, which could be completed in one session if you’re ambitious… or bored.
So what’s it all about? Honestly, you’ll still be asking yourself that after your third and fourth runs.

You assume the role of Red; a singer without a voice, lugging around an oversized sword referred to as the Transistor… and it’s talking to you. If you’re playing on a PS4 you’ll be treated to a little light show from the controller each time he speaks, and he speaks a lot. The Transistor narrates your progress through the game. Some of his remarks to Red can be a touch on the sappy side, but what do you expect from a man who’s had his corporeal form spirited away by a sentient sword?
Red and the Transistor make their way through a deserted futuristic city, Cloudbank. They're on the run. Who from? Well... Transistor is one of those games where you’re always looking for answers, only to end up with twice as many new questions.

Cloudbank is, or was, a sci-fi utopia. A city created and maintained by robotic entities known as the Process, controlled by a select sect of the government. Buildings and bridges can be constructed on a whim, and citizens have the opportunity to vote on the colour of the sky and the weather for the day. Everything is automated, and everything has gone wrong. The Process has gone rogue and has begun deleting the city and people inside, but you’ll start to get the feeling that Red and the Transistor are running from more than just a few robots…
As you daintily tap around the city, you can interact with viewpoints and objects. You can even use a defunct terminal to order a pizza in the middle of the digital doomsday (if you do, make sure you head to Red’s apartment for a bonus cutscene! It’s just after the first gondola fight).
These terminals provide a bit of extra lore if that’s your thing, and it should be. Transistor is jam packed with characters, succinct and intricate interactions, and plot twists – even if some of it is incredibly subtle.

Transistor’s combat system is tricky to master. Red and the Transistor fight against the Process with time on their side, pausing it and queuing up a series of actions that execute in tandem. Your action bar can only queue a limited amount of abilities, however, and knowing which is the best to use for each particular enemy is crucial.As a rule – always go for the backstab; the extra damage boost is well worth it. The fights aren’t impossibly difficult, but they can take a few attempts to get through – especially if you’re facing off against a new incarnation of the Process. Be careful, though, as you’ll lose a skill each time you die. Head to the Access Points to level up, restore your health, and reclaim your lost skills.

Part of Transistor's charm is the combat customisation. With a wealth of skills available to learn, there’s an infinite amount of combinations available. Try Breach with Bounce, and later, Cull. No one single configuration is right or wrong. Play to your strengths, and make sure to check out and assign some to your Passive Slots! (Flood works well here!) Access points are readily available in most, if not every, location, so don’t be afraid to experiment.

After you encounter Sibyl, you’ll have access to Transistor’s sandbox feature – The Backdoor. Here you can take part in time trials, tests of strength and strategy, or just take a break. Some of these challenges get pretty hard, so resist the urge to pitch your controller at the wall and press on. The exp you earn goes a long way to leveling up.

If you’re still intent on punishing yourself, take a look at the limiters next time you’re at an Access Point. These are skills, the same ones you’re using in battle, but turned against you to make your game harder; tougher enemies, a weaker Red. Y’know, the usual stuff to ruin your blood pressure.

It’s a bittersweet game, with a constant feeling that it’s building towards something pretty awful and inevitable, but that’s part of the appeal. The touching relationship between Red and the Transistor really makes the game. Your connection with your controller- I mean, sword, is cleverly worked into the narrative. You, and Red, cannot put him down, carrying him through the city, even though he’s the one guiding you step for step. With Red losing her voice and being unable to express her own feelings clearly, you can insert your own – whether the Transistor bugs the hell out of you or not.

And when the story finally comes to a close and you end up back in the very spot it all started, you’ll have a chance to begin a new game plus. But be careful – some things are a little different the second time around.

Transistor is available for PS4, iOS, and Windows for £14.99, and available from the Playstation Store, the App Store, and Steam, now! 

Alt:Mag © Kaizo Minds Collective 2020 | Layout designed by Rumah Dijual and Lewis Cox.