Transistor: Post-Game Thoughts

In the interest of ensuring that everything I write isn’t just 2,500-word behemoths about the narrative and game design structure of Undertale, I wanted to talk a little about a game I’ve just completed.

And as usual, I am late to the party. I just bought my PS4 in Japan (#humblebrag), so it took me a while to get around to this one.

Transistor, by Supergiant Games, has many of the same features that made Supergiant’s previous venture, Bastion, a critical and commercial success. The combination of solid gameplay mechanics, interesting art, and phenomenal mood-setting music – thanks, Darren Korb – made this a very solid overall experience.

Like Bastion, Transistor is short and to the point. The story is well-written, though I’m confident some of the deeper aspects of it bypassed me, and I won’t go into it more than that because spoiler-free content is generally important to me.

More important than the actual content of the story is that it is largely delivered through the sweet baritone of one Logan Cunningham. Cunningham was the ubiquitous Narrator voice in Bastion, and he serves basically the same purpose in Transistor.

Still, he manages to give a performance that is equally skilled and pleasant to listen to, but completely different in delivery and nuance. Bastion and Transistor have very different tones and overall atmospheres, with Bastion giving a sort of folksy Wild West vibe, and Transistor going for ultra-modern and computerized (though the games share almost identical apocalyptic themes). Cunningham’s performance and Korb’s music change to match each of them beautifully. The sound design in Transistor does as much world building as the art and story, if not more.

A couple other characters (generally antagonists) are voice acted as well, and it is astounding how much personality these voices give the characters in the absence of actual screen time and animation.

It’s probably important to mention, as I rant about the game’s excellent polish, that Transistor is fun to play at its core. It brings an interesting mix of an isometric 2D shooter and turn-based strategy game, and I found myself compelled to play it twice in succession just to get deeper into the combat mechanics (and round out the trophy collection). The level-up mechanics are especially interesting, as each ability you unlock can be used as either a main skill (attack), an upgrade to a main skill (added effect to a different attack), or a passive upgrade (buff), which gives you tons of mix-and-match options for combat.

The game also does a great job of providing you with challenges and situations to try out new combinations. Even as I finished my second playthrough of the main story, I found myself experimenting and finding new combinations that seemed unstoppable (but ultimately weren’t).

Transistor also has a fun way of approaching difficulty. Rather than giving a simple “easy-medium-hard-superhard” option, it allows players to piecemeal difficulty modifiers as they level up. In exchange for an XP boost, players can choose to enact “limiters” which do everything from increasing enemy attack power or quantity, to increasing the number of steps required to stop an enemy re-spawn, to limiting your own equip load.

Some of these limiters I found to be no big deal, and some made things significantly harder. But it’s a clever and intuitive way to approach difficulty, especially since the limiters are introduced one at a time as you level up. This is a much better way to approach difficulty than simply asking players to choose a setting on the “new game” screen.

Fun as it is, Transistor is ultimately a game built around aesthetics as much as the actual core gameplay, and honestly the aesthetics are the reason to play it.

The environment, a techno-city called Cloudbank which effectively exists inside a computer (think Reboot but without “incoming game” every 10 minutes), is interesting to learn about.

The art, music, and sound design, each enjoyable in their own rights, work together to create a cohesive game world with a character as interesting as any of the actual characters.

The flavor text about the major figures in Cloudbank help to make up for what is otherwise a (likely intentional) notable lack of NPCs through most of the first half of the game. That, along with Cunningham’s ever-present narration, and the “terminals” throughout the city which feed you bits of information about what’s happening to the world (and the protagonists’ reaction to it), keep the story sufficiently afloat.

Bottom line: I loved the game, and would recommend it to anyone who liked Bastion, or appreciates action-oriented turn-based strategy games like Valkyria Chronicles.

If you’d like to see it yourself, here’s a stream of me playing Transistor, from roughly the halfway point through the end of the game.