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Throwback Thursday Review: Transistor

By: Mithrandiel (Originally posted on Geektrum 6/23/2014)

Mithical Rating
Gameplay
Story
Graphics
Music/Voice Acting
Replayability

“When everything changes…nothing changes.” – The Camerata

SuperGiant games makes another bold step forward with their latest work, “Transistor”. An action/RPG set in a cyberpunk universe where a mechanized force known as “The Process” works for humanity in the automated city of Cloudbank. The Camerata oversees the operation of the city, and when things begin to go terribly wrong, a popular singer known as “Red” finds herself entangled in the Camerata’s plot. Armed with the Transistor, a large weapon that is part sword, part microchip, she battles The Process and the Camerata in search for answers.

Transistor’s beautifully crafted setting, Cloudbank, helps to draw the player into a rich and deliberate narrative. In a gaming culture that tells more than it shows, Transistor approaches its story elements much like the battle system – it doesn’t see the need in holding your hand to walk you through every detail. It provides you information in blocks, spread out over a much larger net, until finally you can begin to place the pieces together to form the larger story. Central to the conveyance of this interesting story is the exceptional voice acting. The actors each play their role wonderfully, with Sunkrish Bala giving the standout performance of the game as Royce Bracket. While some find his performance as monotone, I would argue that his lack of emotion is very much in character, which makes his limited outbursts all the more dramatic. Essential to understanding the “complete” storyline is Transistor’s New Game+ system. Journeying back through the storyline reveals previously unspoken dialogue, and generally a better picture of the overall story.

After appreciating the unique visual style and impressive voice acting, the next thing I noticed about this game is how very hands-off it is in its approach. Rather than your usual tutorial level that walks your through every nook and cranny of the battle system, Transistor explains the mechanic of your first skill, which effectively exposes your enemy and results in your follow-up skills to do bonus damage, and briefly walks through how the “turn” system works. The entire process takes about 3-5 minutes, that’s it. As you move forward in the game and unlock additional skills, it doesn’t pause and tell you how to apply the skill for maximum effectiveness, you simply have it added to your arsenal.

The battle system is deceitfully complex. There are a total of 16 skills you can acquire through the course of the game, and it  can be assigned to one of the following fields:

Active Slot: Placing a skill in an active slot allows you to use it in combat by assigning it to one of the main 4 buttons: X, O, Square or Triangle.

Upgrade Slot: As you level up, you unlock up to two “upgrade slots” for your four “active slots”. This allows you to amplify or complement a skill with another skill. For example, upgrading “Breach” (a long range, penetrating laser) with “Switch” (a mind-control type skill) will convert any enemies it hits into your allies for ~5 seconds.

Passive Slot: Placing a skill in a passive slot enhances Red’s abilities in numerous ways. It may bolster her HP, increase her durability, or increase her overall damage.

Skills in Transistor

Skills in Transistor

Each of these skills requires a certain amount of memory, or “MEM”, a stat that increases as you level up. Of course, high damage dealing skills and effective utility skills are costly to equip, and when you begin to use upgrade slots, you can easily chew up a third of your available memory on one skill. Additionally, with 16 skills and three different ways to apply them, you end up with a staggering amount of control and freedom as you explore what works best for you.

On the battlefield, you control Red in real-time, executing your skills to dispatch of the process quickly and efficiently. However, possessing the Transistor grants Red an additional skill called a “Turn”. By pressing R2, the player can freeze time and proceed to plan out movement, skill execution and positioning. Once the turn has been planned, all actions are carried out in quick succession with another press of R2. Utilizing this skill does have its drawbacks, as Red will be unable to perform any skills while she recovers.

While in battle, if your HP should ever reach 0, rather than simply killing you and letting you start over from the most recent access (save) point, one of your skills will “overload”. This will render it unusable until you reach another access point, but in exchange you regenerate all of your health. The skill remains “burned out” until the player reaches another access point. Another built in fail-safe is that as you near critical health the game will trigger an emergency “turn”, allowing you to put distance between you and your enemies, or deliver the final combo needed to defeat them. While these seem like features that cater to the casual gamer, they are actually smart decisions that help make otherwise grueling battles more manageable.

Another element to the battle system is a difficulty augmenting system known as “Limiters”. By activating certain limiters you can gain experience bonuses at the expense of more powerful enemies, limited memory, or skills that don’t automatically recover at access points. They certainly up the ante in your average encounter, and should you be brave enough to go into battle with all 10 limiters in play, you’ll encounter a challenge even the most seasoned of gamers can appreciate.

The game itself is fairly short. I believe I cleared through the storyline on my first playthrough in about 5-7 hours. However, Transistor has a number of features that helps draw out the replayability. First among these is the New Game+ mode, or “recursing the story”. Beginning the story again, you retain all of your previous skills and levels, unlock an additional layer of the plot, and get to experience the challenge of even tougher enemies. Second is the “backdoor” testing that players can undertake throughout the storyline. There are a number of different tests that sharpen your ability to plan effective turns, defeat enemies quickly, or just survive against wave after wave of The Process. While the first few tests are just challenging enough to reward you with bonus XP, by the time you are nearing their completion you can begin to appreciate just how difficult the game can be. Finally, each of the skills you earn, as well as the limiters, have different sets of “data” that you can unlock by utilizing them in different slots, encouraging you to try a variety of different setups and fully explore the benefits and downfalls of certain configurations.

Between the impressive selection of skills, the depth of implementation, and the well-paced growth of enemy A.I in terms of difficulty, Transistor’s battle system leaves little to be desired. The impressive storyline, unique visuals and smooth soundtrack will take you for one hell of a ride, and with the challenge of limiters and backdoor tests that await, you will keep coming back for more. Supergiant games has made yet another classic. Time will only tell what else this promising developer has in store.

 

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