Transistor: A lady and her sword


  • TECH
  • Monday, 09 Jun 2014

Transistor is an artfully done sci-fi noir story featuring a mute singer and her talking sword.

TRANSISTOR comes to us from Supergiant Games, the people behind the outstanding 2011 action adventure game, Bastion. If you’ve played that game before, then you’ll likely remember it for three things: a narrator whose voice can out-sexy Barry White’s; a soundtrack filled with some of the most distinct, haunting songs in videogames; and a story that made you hunger for more of its ­mysterious, fractured world.

Transistor takes all of the best parts of Bastion and puts them into a futuristic sci-fi setting.

Seeing Red

The story starts with Red, a ­singer who has lost her voice, standing in front of the body of a man impaled by a massive ­greatsword. The man doesn’t have much to say, but the sword has plenty — the man’s mind has been absorbed into the ­mysterious weapon.

Very mysterious: The story starts with Red, a singer who has lost her voice, standing in front of the body of a man impaled by a massive greatsword.
VERY MYSTERIOUS: The story starts with Red, a singer who has lost her voice, standing in front of the body of a man impaled by a massive greatsword.

Now, the songstress and her talking mega-sword have to travel through the futuristic city of Cloudbank and solve the mystery of who’s been trying to make citizens like her disappear.

Everything from the mysteriously abandoned buildings with art deco architecture, to the beautifully illustrated cutscenes, to the strange public computers (called OVC terminals) that let you vote on tomorrow’s weather draws you into the strange wonder of Cloudbank.

MYSTERY CITY: With its missing inhabitants, Cloudbank is less of a city and more of a gorgeous puzzle to decipher.
MYSTERY CITY: With its missing inhabitants, Cloudbank is less of a city and more of a gorgeous puzzle to decipher.

Excellent world-building is one of the best lessons that Transistor took from Bastion, and Red’s talking sword is a key element in its execution. Transistor replaces Bastion’s omniscient narrator with a character who’s with you on the ground, and the sword’s (one-sided) conversations help clue you in to the events that unfold.

Red’s sword is a combination of best friend and subtle tour guide, and best of all he doesn’t complain that you’re also using him to smack your enemies around.

Stop, Greatsword Time

A story isn’t very interesting unless you have an antagonist, and an action videogame isn’t much fun unless you can beat said antagonist. This is where the Process — an army of creepy, all-assimilating robots — and Transistor’s tactical combat system come into play.

Prepare to be processed: The Process is a truly creepy robotic army, like the Borg if they were designed by Steve Jobs.
PREPARE TO BE PROCESSED: The Process is a truly creepy robotic army, like the Borg if they were designed by Steve Jobs.

Transistor uses a unique blend of real-time and turn-based combat. Whenever you encounter enemies, you’re trapped in an arena until they’re defeated. You can manoeuvre around in real time, but early on your attacks are far too slow and clumsy to connect. The solution?

Enter Turn() mode, which pauses the game and lets you plan your attacks. You queue up your actions in planning mode — say, run behind an enemy, backstab with a stun-inducing Crash() attack, then finish them off with a high-damage Breach() attack — and then execute them in a flash, like a bullet time ninja.

The system is an exciting twist to combat and it lets you feel like a badass without being overpowered, particularly since you’re vulnerable to other enemies when you wait for your Turn() meter to recharge.

SPEED OF FIGHT: Combat can get fast and chaotic, but you can pause the action to plan your moves like a hyper-speed ninja.

There are two things that keep this from being just a gimmicky alternative to a simple turn-based combat system. First, the Process have enough variety to keep things interesting, and these include enemies that are nigh-unkillable unless you fight them in Turn(), and enemies that mess around with your Turn() ability. (Yes, when they both appear simultaneously, it’s a cruelly effective combo.)

Second, the combat system ­actually plays very strongly into the main draw of Transistor, i.e. the story. Each “attack” or “spell” that you can equip is called a Function(), and each Function() is derived from a person that lived in Cloudbank.

OVC TERMINALS: The futuristic OVC terminals (public computers) not only let you follow the (apocalyptic) city news, but also vote for tomorrow's weather. Science!

By using each Function() in its three variations — either slotted as an active skill, attached as an upgrade to another Function(), or parked in a passive ability slot — you’ll unlock a Cloudbank citizen’s personal profile. That idea’s pure genius! Because we always wanted to learn more about the city and its people, we kept changing our combat setup, thus adding a lot of variety to the fights.

Help()

We finished playing Transistor in a little over four hours and ended up craving for more. There’s a New Game+ mode that lets you play after you finish, but it’s just not the same. Like Bastion before it, Transistor is a single well-told story, leaving many things open to interpretation but having a definite end.

TRACE RECORDS: Interestingly, you can unlock the story of Cloudbank's personalities by using their associated Functions() (i.e. spells) in combat.

Fortunately, we can console ­ourselves by listening to the ­excellent Transistor OST. We All Become and Paper Boats, ostensibly sung by Red herself (while she still had her voice), are at the top of our playlists now. But be warned: just like Bastion’s Build That Wall, the ­lyrics can be ­considered story spoilers if you haven’t finished the game yet.

Before we close things off, here are some tips for your adventures in Cloudbank. First, get used to the Jaunt() function, as it’s a short-­distance teleport that lets you get into position for backstabs and out of enemy attacks.

FUNCTION()ALITY: Functions() are essentially your spells, weapons and armour, and you can combine them in unique ways.

Second, Transistor has no ­healing potions to use in combat and ­levelling up only opens new Functions() and slots, not increase your stats. Try to get Bounce() or Flood() in your passive slots, as they give a damage shield and restore your life up to 50% respectively.

Finally, go crazy and experiment with which Functions() you bring into combat. There’s an Access Point (read: save point) before or after nearly every battle, giving you an opportunity to recover and modify your setup on a constant basis.

Good Luck()!

Conclusion

We’d highly recommend ­playing Transistor, but with the caveat that you approach it more for the narrative than the gameplay ­challenge. Don’t get us wrong — the unique combat mechanics support the game in an excellent manner, but for us the real reason we kept playing was to see the story of a lady and her sword.

4panelreview-2014-transistor-PRINT
CONCISE: A summary of the Transistor playing experience as drawn by the reviewer, a dude of many talents.

Normally, when we say that a story’s most interesting character is an inanimate object, it would come off as an insult. But in this case, it’s the greatest compliment we can give.

Pros: Engrossing story & world; amazing art & music; leaves you wanting more.

Cons: Leaves you wanting more.

Transistor
(Supergiant Games)
Action-adventure game for PC (Steam), PS4
Website: supergiantgames.com
Rating: 4.5 stars
Price: US$19.99 (RM65)


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