I think one might be hard-pressed to find many games who’s combat rewards creativity and experimentation as much as Transistor’s does. It’s cunning and intricate, yet extremely intuitive once you get over the initial learning curve. It’s clear there was a great deal of thoughtfulness involved in putting it together, and that’s definitely not the only aspect of the game with that kind of meticulous care put into it. The presentation, art, music, character designs, and premise all assimilate to form an experience that is a unique one, to say the least.
Transistor is an isometric RPG with a novel spin on turn-based combat. In actuality, it’s a clever hybrid of a real time action oriented style mixed up with turn-based esque elements. The game stars a silent protagonist named Red, and her magical talking sword. I suppose it’s not fair to put Red in the same category as your ordinary silent protagonist, because she can’t talk for reasons that are actually heavily relevant to the story. Her voice was stolen at the beginning of the game, and that fact is all the more heartbreaking when you consider that she was a highly commended vocalist. It’s not all bad though, by holding the correct button, you can make her hum along harmoniously to the jazzy-electronic ambience in the background, which is a neat touch.
Let me get this out of the way now. The narrative style that Transistor puts forth is generally not for me. By playing through the game, I understood some of the basic surface level details of what was going on in the story, but much of the substance is exposed to you by reading terminals and descriptions. That kind of storytelling was never one that clicked with me. So because of that, the narrative had a disappointingly weak impact on my overall experience. Even on a second playthrough, I made an attempt to put more effort in comprehending and piecing together the details, but didn’t get much more from it.
The combat is where this game really shines. At the beginning, you start off with 4 different skills (which are called functions) that you can map to the available action buttons. Since I played on PS4, those were Square, Circle, Cross, and Triangle. As you level up, you start unlocking more functions to utilize. Now, as I just mentioned, you only have 4 action buttons to map your moves to, so if you have 15 functions, you won’t be able to use those all at once, right? Wrong. You can actually attach functions onto other functions which alter how they behave. For example, there’s the Help() function that summons a dog to help you fight enemies, and there’s the Spark() function which shoots out multiple shells that explode to cause AOE damage. You can attach Spark() to Help(), which, when used, will summon two dogs instead of one. It also works the other way around, so you could attach Help() to Spark() for a totally different effect. This works for all of the 16 skills you unlock throughout the game, so as you could imagine, there are a ton of possibilities. As soon as I realized this, I immediately had a vision of strutting with a squad of dogs that would attack other enemies and turn them to my side for a limited amount of time. Soon enough, I got the opportunity to do that, but it admittedly didn’t go quite as well as expected.
Moment to moment combat can flow more like a turn-based affair, or an action oriented style depending on how you play. That is so because when the action gauge is filled, you can freeze time and plan out each of Red’s actions. Each action set will drain said gauge, which limits the amount of actions you can take in one turn. Then you have to wait for it to fill up before you can freeze time again. If you play your cards right, it’s possible that you can largely avoid that whole deal. Attacking in real time doesn’t deplete any bars, but it also makes you extremely vulnerable as many enemies and attacks generally move much faster than Red does. It wasn’t until my second playthrough that I figured out a strategy which would allow me to play while significantly lowering the necessity to freeze time.
On top of the 16 functions that can be attached to each other, there are also “Permission” slots that you can link them to, and each one adds a certain passive effect to Red. Transistor does a lot to encourage you to experiment with different setups. There’s a door that appears in periodic locations throughout the city that transport you to a beach where you can take on challenge rooms. Many of these challenge rooms forced me to mix up my functions, which ended up getting me familiar with how some of the functions I had hardly used prior to that could be useful. Some challenge rooms also teach you about certain mechanics, like comboing functions and backstabbing enemies to deal maximum damage. That knowledge serves to be invaluable in the heat of combat, though backstabbing can sometimes be a bit tricky, because it can be hard to tell exactly where an enemy’s back is facing.
Another key way the game forces you to mix things up is by getting heavily damaged by enemies. When your health bar depletes, it overloads (or disables) one of your active functions, and you die when you lose your last one. These functions don’t get repaired until you’ve advanced to two different save points. Save points are usually placed after every few encounters, so they’re not too far away. Still, if a function you heavily relied on got overloaded, you’d have to fill that slot with another function and figure out new strategies. I thought this would be annoying at first, but I quickly learned to appreciate it quite a bit. There are many different combinations and strategies that I would have never realized were possible if it weren’t for that push.
As you progress through the game, you will slowly be introduced to some new enemy types. There aren’t many though. This is really apparent on a new game + run where it throws out all of the enemy types at you from the start, and you go on to fight the same limited selection of goons over and over again for the rest of the game. The battlefields themselves generally feel pretty samey too. This is the biggest shortcoming in regards to the gameplay. The main way to lessen feelings of repetitiveness is to mix up your function setups. Playing around with different setups is what kept me enjoying the combat in my playthroughs. I also strongly believe that Transistor could have done with more bosses, because there weren’t many. I couldn’t help but think about the potential in that regard. The final battle had a very cool concept, but it ended up being disappointingly easy. I went into it with a setup where 2 out of 4 of my functions slots were useless and still had no problem winning on my first try.
Another crucial thing in regards to keeping the combat engaging for me were limiters. Limiters are things you unlock that you can activate to raise the difficulty in different ways. I had a few of them on, and if I hadn’t, the game would have been too easy for me to feel like it was worth experimenting with function setups. If I could steamroll with any ol’ combination, then there would be little point in me searching for better strategies. As it was, the game was never overwhelmingly challenging with the limiters I had, but it was challenging enough to make me often rethink and revise my function setups to see if I could be doing something more effectively.
There are a few minor gripes I had with Transistor. One of them is the fact that you can’t view and inspect your full function setup unless you’re at a save point. Only being able to do that at save points is fine enough, but there were a few times I wanted to do it in other instances and couldn’t. Seems like something that could have simply been accessed via start menu. Another small issue I had was the lack of a feature to save function presets. There are a lot of different slots to put things into, and there were times where I had wished I could just save presets instead of having to try to remember everything I had in a previous setup that I may want to revisit. Though, they probably did that on purpose because it would discourage people a bit to play around with new setups, so ultimately I can let that one slide.
Transistor is a beauty. The artstyle is absolutely gorgeous, the soundtrack, while not one that sticks with me much, gave the game a distinct vibe. Only the narrative left something to be desired for me. The gameplay is what really tops off this experience, and is easily my main takeaway. Thanks to the open ended nature of the combat, I enjoyed a good 9 hours across two playthroughs of the game, and will definitely be looking out for Supergiant’s next title.
Spoilery gallery below.