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EGM Review: Transistor

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Posted on May 20, 2014 AT 09:00am

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Transistor may be about a woman who’s lost her voice, but it’s clear developer Supergiant Games has found theirs. More than any other studio working today, they seem comfortable delivering experiences that are not just fun or well-designed, but beautiful. I can think of a dozen different companies capable of delivering an action-RPG that plays as well as Transistor, yet I can’t think of a single one that could’ve imbued it with so much soul.

As with Bastion, their 2011 debut, it’s Supergiant’s eye for poignant detail that carries the day. Stages glow with a soft, bright look that falls somewhere between a watercolor painting and a tilt-shift photograph. As you run, sparks trickle from the tip of your outsized sword—the titular Transistor—and go flittering along the ground in a circuit-board pattern. When out of combat, the left shoulder button is dedicated, of all things, to humming. Hold it down, and heroine Red will plant her feet, cradle her sword, and begin murmuring along to the score, providing a heartbreaking reminder of what she’s searching for. Every minor aspect of the musical and visual presentation has been treated with an almost pathological care, and the end result is nothing short of stunning.

Fans of Bastion will recognize many of that game’s signatures reconfigured here to new ends. The frontier fantasy of Caledonia has been replaced by the cyber-noir of Cloudbank—a city so technologically advanced citizens can vote on the weather and color of the sky—but the pervasive sense of wonder and rich history feels quite similar. And Red’s quest, like the Kid’s, pits her against a faceless collective, this time a creeping threat known as the Process that reconfigures all it encounters into a mass of clean white pillars. The most comforting reappearance is that of Logan Cunningham, Bastion’s narrator, who provides the voice of a mysterious man trapped inside the Transistor. Once again, he delivers a remarkable performance. While there are a few other actors rounding out the cast, Cunningham still does nearly all of the narrative heavy lifting by himself—and still makes it look effortless.

In some ways, Transistor feels like a conscious effort to improve on everything Bastion did well, to build something that feels both familiar and distinctly, ambitiously different. There’s no sign of any sophomore slump here, just the added experience and confidence of a brilliant first effort.

That composure is on full display in Transistor’s combat system, which takes Bastion’s emphasis on strategic choice and blows it out on an exponential level. Instead of selecting from a lineup of weapons, Red instead equips various abilities (known as functions) to the Transistor, enabling a variety of distinct attacks, from basic swipes and evasive dashes to area-of-effect life steals and cloaking. The masterstroke is that each of these functions—you’ll have 16 in all, once you’ve leveled up and progressed through the story—can also serve as modifiers for other attacks, or as passive buffs. After you’ve unlocked all of the Transistor’s slots, there are literally thousands of unique builds, and you’re free to swap freely between them at any of the game’s frequent save points.

While battles unfold in real time, you can also pause the action at any point by initiating what the game calls a Turn(). In this frozen state, you can queue up a series attacks, with each move and ability eating up a different amount of your action bar. Once you end the Turn(), Red will execute the plan before enemies have a chance to react. There’s a delightful gambit involved, too. Pausing time allows you to deal serious damage and perform otherwise impossible combos, but it also leaves you vulnerable, since all but a handful of functions are disabled until the Turn() bar refills.

If the concepts underlying combat are impressive, the execution is slightly less so. Though most of the game retains a delicate balance, encouraging you to constantly try out new loadouts and juggle precipitously between the real-time and tactical approaches, a few powerful late-game functions effectively throw all that out the window. These abilities, when decked out with the right modifiers and used in conjunction, allow you to deal upwards of 1,500 damage in a single Turn(). The problem? Only two enemies in the entire game have more than 1,000 HP. Oops.

The worst part is, you’ll most likely gain access to these abilities just before the game’s final segment, when new, ostensibly tougher enemy types start to crop up. What should’ve been a trying gauntlet is instead reduced to a Sunday stroll, as you casually crush everything in your path by repeating the same series of attacks over and over again. The final showdown twists the knife even deeper by serving up an extraordinarily cool concept—one that you’ll have no time to appreciate because you’ll be too busy killing the boss in about 30 seconds.

You might argue that using this specific set of functions is entirely optional, that anyone who chooses to do so is willfully spoiling their own experience. If this were another game in another genre, you’d be right, but so much of Transistor’s core gameplay loop relies on what happens between battles: the strategizing, the min-maxing, the constant respeccing. The game dares you to solve it, and then, suddenly and disappointingly, it lets you. You’re left with everything you wanted and the harsh realization that all the fun was in the struggle.

Still, that deflated final hour does little to spoil the many enjoyable ones that come before it. When it comes right down to it, Transistor just isn’t the sort of game that needs perfectly engineered gameplay to be well and truly great. A month from now, I’m certain I won’t be able to recall a single fight, but I’ll vividly remember everything else: the touching glimpses of humanity, the striking, deserted cityscapes, the quiet moments spent humming in an alleyway while the whole world comes to pieces around me. I’ll remember the beautiful details. For that, I think, Supergiant should be endlessly proud.

Developer: Supergiant Games • Publisher: Supergiant Games • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 5.20.2014
9.0

Transistor falters near the end by giving players access to a few game-breakingly powerful abilities, but the anticlimax is more than made up for by its touching story, gorgeous presentation, and imaginative take on the action-RPG formula.

The Good A gorgeous aesthetic, heartfelt story, and ambitious combat system.
The Bad Late-game balance issues that sap the fun out of the ending and New Game +.
The Ugly When a sword has more game than I do.
Transistor is available on PlayStation 4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4. Review code was provided by Supergiant Games for the benefit of this review.
Josh Harmon, Associate Editor
Josh Harmon picked up a controller when he was 3 years old—and he hasn't looked back since. This has made him particularly vulnerable to attacks from behind. He joined EGM as an intern following a brief-but-storied career on a number of small gaming blogs across the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @jorshy. Meet the rest of the crew.

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