It’s been almost three years since Bastion graced the Xbox 360, but Supergiant Games have since moved on to the current generation with Transistor for the Playstation 4 and PC. Featuring a slick combination of tactical and real-time combat, Transistor shares a lot with Supergiant‘s previous game. Although I enjoyed that feeling of nostalgia, sometimes those similarities made it hard for me to separate the two.
In Transistor, you play as Red, a famous singer in the city of Cloudbank who has just escaped a failed assassination attempt. The city is being overrun by The Process, a mechanical army being controlled by a political organization called The Camerata. During her escape, Red loses her voice and stumbles upon the titular Transistor impaled in the chest of a strange man. The Transistor appears to be a powerful weapon that can absorb the voices of the fallen, but could it be something beyond Red’s imagination? The Camerata seem to think so, and they’ll stop at nothing to get it.
As I mentioned earlier, Transistor shares a lot of similarities with Supergiant‘s Bastion, from it’s 3D isometric navigation to its seemingly hand-drawn art style. Similar to The Kid, Red is a silent protagonist who is guided along her journey by the Transistor, voiced by Bastion‘s narrator, Logan Cunningham. Red is also voiced by Bastion veteran Ashley Barrett, whom you may remember as Zia, and Darren Korb is back again to provide another fantastic musical score. All of this worked out incredibly well, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve already done this before. It was as if your favorite group of musicians reformed under a different band name, yet made similar music.
What really allows Transistor to step out of Bastion‘s shadow is its amazing combination of tactical and real-time combat, and the ability to thoroughly customize Red’s attacks. Each of the controller’s face buttons can be assigned a different ability to use during combat. Those abilities can then be used in real-time, or linked together by Red to dish out damage more methodically through the game’s Turn() system. Using the R2 button, Red can stop time and line up a string of specific movements and abilities to take advantage of the battlefield, but utilizing this Turn() system will leave her vulnerable for a period of time while it recharges.
As Red levels up, you’ll obtain new abilities to swap in and out of your rotation, but there is more to Transistor‘s customization than meets the eye. Each ability can be used in three different ways — as an attack, to upgrade another ability or as a passive bonus to Red herself. For instance, Jaunt() can be used to dash and avoid attacks, but when applied as an upgrade to another ability will allow the use of that ability during your Turn() cooldown. Your other option is to set Jaunt() as a passive ability instead, which would reduce the cooldown of the Turn() function. If that wasn’t complex enough, every ability is completely unique and takes up a specific amount of memory within the Transistor, so you can’t just jam in the most powerful abilities in the game.
The customization is much easier to learn within the game, although there wasn’t much in the way of a tutorial to do so. I didn’t even realize I could replace the four primary abilities learned early on with the ones earned from leveling up until the latter half of the game. On the bright side, once I had a better understanding of what I was doing, I became enthralled with the combat system and couldn’t wait to jump in to New Game Plus upon completion.
I also enjoyed the enemy design, as each enemy had their own attack style and role within The Process. Weeds, for instance, would sprout from the ground and heal nearby enemies, while Cheerleaders would channel a protective shield around them.
Figuring out which to take down first was ideal, but death was rarely an issue in Transistor, as once Red’s health is depleted, she’s allowed an emergency Turn() segment. Should she manage to destroy something, she would remain alive with a sliver of her life remaining. Failure to land a killing blow would cause one of her abilities to overload at random, thus losing that ability until the end of combat. You could literally go on until you’ve lost all 4 abilities, essentially giving you at least 4 tries with each encounter. Lost abilities would then have to be recovered by visiting waypoints, but there were so many scattered about Cloudbank that it rarely felt like punishment.
Like Bastion, Transistor offers many different trials to complete if you’d like to extend your game beyond the campaign, but aside from New Game Plus, there really isn’t much in the way of replay value. Completing these trials would unlock background music, trophies, etc., and become fairly challenging as you progress, but you can also activate modifiers — yes, like in Bastion — to make the game more difficult at the benefit of increased XP gains.
Overall, my experience with Transistor was fun, but felt all too familiar. I sometimes felt that had I never played Bastion, I might have been in awe of Transistor just a little more. It’s not as if it was too much of a good thing, but the similarities were too hard to ignore during my initial 5 1/2 hour playthrough. Transistor features an amazing cast of actors, a fantastic soundtrack and a deliciously designed world in Cloudbank, but what really stuck out for me was its well-crafted combat system. It’s a tragic tale that’s beautifully told, and although it treads familiar territory, it’s still a great game and another solid indie title for PS4 owners.
Recommended for fans of: Bastion, the combat mechanics of Vagrant Story & the original Parasite Eve, RPG’s in general.
*This review is based on the PS4 version of the game. Transistor is also available for PC, but unless we find significant differences in each version, consider this our definitive review.
Bradley Keene is an avid gamer & aspiring writer from Baltimore, MD that handles news, reviews and editing here at What’s Your Tag?. If he’s not writing or knee-deep in an MMO, he’s usually watching low-budget horror films or following Orioles baseball. Follow him on Twitter, Twitch or contact him by e-mail. Love gaming? Join TEAM XBRO today!