In Meet the Parents, Robert De niro’s Jack Byrne tells Ben Stiller’s Greg Focker that a humans relationship with a dog is easy, given how unconditional the love given from the latter to the former is. However, you have to work for a cat’s love he says. His summation? “A dog is very easy to break, but cats make you work for their affection. They don’t sell out the way dogs do.” With so many games so eager for their customers time and affection all of the time, the resurgence of games that demand a little work is refreshing. Transistor is one such game.
Following on from their superb 2012 debut, Bastion, Supergiant games are finally back with the eagerly anticipated sophomore effort, another beautifully stylised and musically enhanced isometric hack and slash adventure, introducing some effective and empowering combat mechanics whilst taking a slight step backwards from it’s predecessor in terms of narrative.
The visual style is the first thing that strikes you. The bright and colourful hand drawn style from Bastion is continued here, but is given a much more art-deco fused with cyberpunk style. Darren Korb’s Bastion soundtrack was one of two that I have actually gone out and purchased, and the music in Transistor, created by Korb again, is just as good. An eclectic mix of traditional instruments filtered through techno beats and rhythms, it complements the on screen action superbly, creating an immediately engaging opening.
The opening of the game is narratively opaque bordering on unintelligible, though this is mitigated somewhat by the sense of purpose the set up immediately instils. You take control of Red, a silent character whose first act in the game is to pull a sword, the transistor of the title, from the body of fallen man in an alley in the retro-futuristic city of Cloudbank. It soon becomes clear that the city has been shut down by a group of terrorists calling themselves the Camerata and the urban automated security system put in place, known as the Process, made up of a collection of functional and robotic enemy types, is there to impede your progress.
It doesn’t take long for the combat to kick in, and initially, based upon your experience of Bastion or other games of this ilk, it feels slow and unresponsive. Your single attack feels impossibly languid and delayed from button push to on screen action, but then the turn based nature of the action kicks in. A quick hit of the R2 button puts Red into turn-based mode. At the top of the screen is an action bar and Red can queue up physical attacks and spatial moves. You can take as long as you need to during this process, and can undo any moves you make with a quick tap of the L2 button. Moving Red around the battlezone takes up space in the action bar, and adding functions takes up even more, so you really need to think about each move even though you are given time to do so.
As you make your way through the world you meet important characters in a variety of ways, whether it is coming across their slumped corpse, or through encountering them via an individual boss fight. Each time you do, you gain their function, or active power, whatever you want to call it. Very soon your initially limiting toolset expands and you find yourself cleaving and slashing around the battlefield in real time or via the turn based mode. This is only on the surface, as the functions have multiple roles. The transistor has several slots, with the primary four being mapped to the face buttons (triangle, square, circle, cross) and each of these moves have two upgrade slots. As you collect functions, you can map them via stations littered across the city. For example, a function called Bounce, mapped to an active slot, delivers a ricocheting bolt that jumps from enemy to enemy. Mapped to an upgrade slot, it buffs another move so that it is chain reactive jumping from target to target. There are also four passive slots and mapping this move to one of these slots gives you a defensive shield that bounces damage back to enemies. Each of the functions therefore has three uses, a primary attack, secondary buff and a passive bonus, and with 16 functions in totals, with effects ranging from stuns to making enemies friendly, from devastating heavy attacks to life draining ones, the possibilities are extensive.
The experimentation and switching in and out is extended to the narrative too. As each of the functions is linked to a key character, equipping and using the function in a particular slot unlocks story information about each character and adds some background to the world and the story. The functions also act as ‘lives’ and also serve to give the game one of its most effective mechanics. In many games it is often easy to settle into a familiar rhythm and rely on a setup that suits you. Feel comfortable with a strong attack a fast attack and a move that stuns? Overuse them and lose lives and you lose the moves, forcing you to swap in new moves at regularly spaced stations, and encouraging you to mix and match combinations you wouldn’t have thought of unless forced to do so.
It is a system that is learnt through practice and experimentation and simple explanations do not do it justice. Having been critical in previous reviews of combat in games, in the execution, distraction and the frustration it can often bring about, in Transistor I relished every encounter with every enemy, and couldn’t wait to use my powers and try out new combinations of moves. For me personally it was a testament to the elegance of the system that as someone that values narrative drive over moment to moment action, the reverse was effective for me here.
The story, so prominent and effective in Bastion, takes a back seat here, and is probably the game’s downfall. Though that last word may be a little hyperbolic, compared to Bastion, which had a much more effective story, by the end of the game there is still confusion and a sense of unresolved threads hanging over proceedings. This doesn’t detract ultimately from the experience however, as the new game plus is something to dive back into, and again, something I rarely do. Though the game is around the 6 hour mark for a single playthrough it is well worth going through again, especially as all the functions most likely won’t be obtained on on run.
To return to Robert De Niro, Transistor is a cat of a game, one that will not help you, will not guide you, will not demand your undivided attention at all times, but one that will reward you taking your time, thinking carefully and making the effort to engage with it, and give you more pleasure the more you do.
MLG Rating 9/10 Format: PC / PlayStation 4 Release Date: 20/05/2014
Disclosure: Craig Hallam purchased a copy of Transistor for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of two weeks on a PlayStation 4. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.