It has been a good few weeks for arcade games on consoles. Ubisoft’s Child of Light was a beautiful and engaging RPG, and Super Time Force contained loads of humor and a unique gameplay hook, both of which were used to great effect. As much as I enjoyed those games, however, Transistor on the PS4 leaves them both in the rearview mirror. Developed by Supergiant Games, the people behind the excellent Bastion, Transistor is among the most enjoyable gaming experiences I’ve had in years.
Combat in Transistor is conducted in both real time and via a series of pre-planned moves that are set up while time is paused. The former is very straightforward as you can equip up to four functions mapped to corresponding face buttons and conveniently displayed at the bottom of the screen. Each action can be executed as many times as you’d like at no cost; there is a brief cooldown for some moves, but there’s no additional limitations.
Even though you’re free to strike as much as you’d like in real time, the problem is that you’re quite vulnerable to counterattacks, which is where queued fighting comes into play. Pulling the right trigger stops time, and a large dome appears over the battleground. Once that’s done you’ll have as long as you want to plan out your moves. Unlike real-time combat, however, a meter depletes with every step or action you take. Their respective cost vary significantly with basic movement or weak ranged fire consuming very little of the meter, whereas large area strikes demand much more.
Whenever you’re satisfied with your plan pulling the right trigger again sends your character into action as she unleashes a flurry of moves. The tradeoff here is that all your offensive moves temporarily become unavailable, making you vulnerable to your enemies until the meter refills — the more of the meter you use in planning, the longer it takes. It’s a great system that makes hit and run a critical technique, and it adds strategy as to when and how you use queuing.
Things are pretty polished with the setup, but the game lacks the ability to cycle through targets, which can be an issue in a couple of ways. The first is when aiming at a distant foe. This is done by holding down the button of the function you wish to use and then rotating the analog stick. It sounds fine, but it turns out to be an imprecise process, and I had more trouble painting my targets than I should. Second is when enemies get clumped together. There’s no way to rotate the view, and it’s sometimes tough to pick out the enemy you want to attack.
There’s nothing here that’ll set you back dramatically, especially since you’re not under any kind of time constraint when these issues do come up, but the ability to cycle through enemies would’ve been nice as it essentially would’ve solved both of the above issues.
Cloudbank is a beautiful city, somehow being both dark and colorful at the same time. The way colors run, bleed and smear into one another gives Transistor a unique look, and the mix of technology and nature is reflected not just in the architecture but the enemies as well. The game also creates some delightful animations, from the various attacks lighting up the screen to the sprawling circuitry board effect that trails in your sword’s wake. Everything just oozes personality, and you can’t help but feel that Supergiant spent countless hours obsessing over the smallest detail.
Music is a huge part of Transistor, and whether it’s original songs being belted out, the soft humming of the main character, or the mellow, jazzy background tunes, the entire soundtrack is wonderful. And there’s your companion, who just happens to be a talking sword (or is he simply talking through the sword?). The voice work does as much as anything to create the mood, and it too is done exceptionally well, helping to ground a story that’s thin on specifics in an emotional relationship that builds slowly and believably over the length of the game.
It takes mere moments to be tossed into Transistor, with the confusion that you feel a deliberate extension of what’s being felt by Red — our entertainer turned heroine that’s lost her voice and gained a mysterious blade that can talk to her. You awake to a deserted city that has been overrun by a group of robotic (yet organic looking) creatures known as “the process.” It’s up to you to set things right, and to do that it seems you’ll need to track down a group that calls itself the “Camerata.”
That’s about as far as I want to go with the story as it’s something you should experience unspoiled, especially since the aforementioned ambiguity allows you to interpret many of its elements in your own way. Just know that, even though combat is the lifeblood of Transistor, searching the city and interacting with objects is a good way to flesh out more of the world’s mythos.
Beyond the structural aspects of combat that I already discussed, there’s also a tremendous amount of customization available. As you progress you’ll continue to collect functions; there are 16 in all, each unique in their purpose (a melee strike, charm a foe, a gravitational pull, and so on). While that may not sound like that much, every one of those 16 functions has three effects based on where you utilize them in your loadout: active, upgrade or passive.
The active effect is what it does when it’s slotted into one of your four main functions. Each active skill can (eventually) accommodate two upgrades, and this allows you to combine your various functions as you see fit, creating things like a piercing ray that temporarily makes your target fight for you. Passive functions gives Red boosts or automatic abilities. For instance, a shield that activates when you’re hit or one that makes your meter fill more slowly when planning attacks. I haven’t done the math, but there are a lot of combinations you can try.
In another clever move, you don’t simply have carte blanche to load up Red with all the best functions as soon as you get them. Instead you’ve got a finite amount of “memory,” and every function carries a specific cost between one and four. Thus it’s up to you to maximize your combat effectiveness while still working within the constraints of the system.
Each successfully completed battle inches you closer to leveling up, which typically gives you a new function along with a permission (adding more memory, unlocking additional passive and upgrade slots) and/or a limiter. These limiters work like skulls in Halo, reducing your combat readiness or increasing the enemies’ potency in exchange for an experience bonus. There are 10 in total, and battles can get pretty intense with them all activated.
If there’s a problem with Transistor it’s that the game isn’t very difficult unless you really start stacking up those limiters, and even then some of the “difficulty” feels annoying instead of natural (i.e. enemies that just keep re-spawning). I went through the entire game and much of the game-plus mode where skills and enemy evolvements carry forward without ever dying. Sure, my health drained to zero a few times, but all that happens is you temporarily lose one of your equipped functions. You have to lose all four to truly be defeated, and I never lost more than two in a battle.
Beyond the game-plus mode there’s some other supplemental content, which can be found in “back doors” scattered around the city. Here you can take on a series of tests that challenge you to win fights under a certain time, in a single move and so on. These are surprisingly high quality, and they do a good job of introducing different functions that you might not otherwise try out.
Transistor once again proves that you don’t need a massive budget or huge design team to create a great game; and believe me when I say that this is a great game. Drenched in ambiance and style, and anchored by a strong core of engaging gameplay, Transistor is one title you simply have to play.