SuperGiant Games’ Transistor came to Playstation Plus in February, 2015 as one of the free games from the Instant Games Collection. Like any avid gamer, when Playstation give away games you tend to be grateful and why not? The Playstation Plus Instant Games collection has brought me hours of joy. So I decided to sink my teeth into one of its latest offerings, Transistor.
Transistor uses an isometric point of view and is essentially an indie-developed, tactical, action adventure, role-playing game. Players assume the role of ‘Red’ – a red-headed singer who is attacked by ‘The Process,’ a robot force under the command of a group known as the ‘Camerata.’ When the Camerata show up, attempting to assassinate Red for whatever unknown reason, they throw a sword like weapon at her, known as the ‘Transistor’ which inadvertently misses her but stabs an, as yet unknown, man who Red seems to have some kind of relationship with. The Transistor appears to absorb the very soul of this man, along with Red’s voice. The man is then able to communicate to Red via the sword. Red then decides to commandeer the Transistor and take the fight to those who tried to assassinate her in the fictional neo city of Cloudbank.
Now that story, as far fetched as it seems, sounds relatively straight forward and actually makes sense. Now, whilst I was playing Transistor, I got the general gist, but still failed to understand what was really going on. I had to look up the game’s plot to help fill in the holes.
The game’s bizarre and oblique narrative will leave you somewhat perplexed. Firstly, we have the aid of ‘the man’ who’s soul is trapped within the Transistor. The man continues to talk throughout the entire game either pointing out items of interest or ends up talking complete gibberish in a poor attempt to give the game a sense of enigma, but only succeeds in becoming more and more irritating and creating more confusion. Players even encounter terminals that have voice messages on them that shed little light as to what is actually happening. All that really could be discerned (prior to the game’s ending) is that the group known as ‘The Camerata’ created the ‘Process’, a bunch of nasty robots, because they ‘had to’ but now the ‘process’ won’t listen or obey them. Following so far? Oh good I’m glad someone is.
Deciding to ditch fathoming the game’s story, I proceeded to focus on game play, which in fairness was much more straight forward than the bewildering plot.
Transistor has a mixture of real-time combat and turn-based combat. Real time, as you imagine, will see the player mash down on the main buttons to combat the evil robots. However, this method is ill-advised, as several adversaries can be quite evasive. The turn based combat effectively stops time and allows the player to plan their moves and unleash their attacks. Provided the turn-base cool down bar has re-charged, turn-based combat can be activated at anytime during play. Once this happens a grid will appear and the player will have a series of turns, whilst the ‘Process’ are suspended in time. Walking counts as a turn and special moves can take up several turns, so players have to plan their moves carefully. Back stabbing usually grants more damage but can use more moves as the player will need to find a way round the back of the opponent. The first few times I entered this mode I was confused as to what was actually happening, but once you begin to suss how it works and what combination of moves are more deadly against certain opponents, it becomes second nature.
Sadly, Transistor shows all of its cards too early. The game play is rather insipid and never develops or varies as the game progresses, leaving gamers with a sense of immense repetition. I know all games are repetitive to an extent, but almost within the first 15 minutes you understand all gameplay mechanics and how the levelling up system works.
With the transistor in hand, Red will come across other victims of the evil ‘process.’ The transistor will absorb the consciousness of the individual, unlocking a new attack. These attacks are either close, ranged or deal damage to a larger area. Equipped attacks also have additional slots so that you can bolster your abilities even further. One of my stackable abilities meant that my main attack would temporarily assimilate a robot into my ranks, turning robot against robot. You can also acquire useful non aggressive abilities such as invisibility or dash.
But the most interesting aspect is how these abilities double up as lives. You have four abilities equipped at any one time but should your health bar drop to zero, you will lose that ability until you reach a terminal and re-equip with a different ability. Old damaged abilities can be re-equipped but the player must access a couple of terminals before they are ready to go again. Players who lose all four abilities in a single enclosed skirmish die.
For me, Transistor had little to hold my interest but there were a few highlights. The character and level design are reminiscent of a neo-techno-cyber-art deco Paris, heavily inspired by movies such as Bladerunner or Akira and look stunning. With triple A titles focusing on unparalleled realism (although nothing wrong with that), it is refreshing to see that the indie camp love to indulge in bright, luscious colourings. The soundtrack is also impressive. Meshing authentic European instruments such as an accordion with dark brood electro dance music, giving the off kilter cyber city Cloudbank some much-needed character.
Excusing the deplorable narrative, Transistor has little originality or inspiring gameplay. You can’t help but feel amongst the solid yet rudimentary gameplay, that some variation and a change of tempo could have transcended this indie title into something genuinely fun to play. The stop/start turn based mechanic and the incessant narrative from ‘the man’ make the Transistor a real chore to play. Many gamers will probably find, besides the occasional in-game challenge, that there is little replay value in this title. Some gamers will more likely find there is little reason to even finish the game.