When thinking about Transistor, stacks of analogies spring to mind:
- It’s like a broadway play; everything is so lavish you’re afraid to look to the left for fear of missing the right. But no, that doesn’t fit.
- Sometimes symbolist paintings seem like the right comparison — not quite right either.
- Last one: a techno album by a band who just released a pop-rock joint. Nope.
As an audience, it’s easy to feel like the best chance of understanding Transistor would be to shoehorn it into a mold, but Transistor will decline. It just moves.
Transistor’s narrative strategy is to hide everything in plain sight. In it you play as the singer Red who has just had her voice stolen when she comes across the transistor, a sword with a voice of its own. The first few minutes in the city of Cloudbank are overwhelming: the incredible wealth of colour, sound, dialogue, and text all work in service of its chaotic aesthetic. It’s visual design is so excessive, and so excessively cool, it’s easy to get swept up in it and miss story cues entirely. This keeps the game’s straightforward revenge plot synced with the disposition of its cyberpunk look; the two are both so stylized it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint what exactly it is you are seeing. It may sound problematic (and it still will be for some) but the consistency of its surreal qualities leaves a lasting, cohesive, impression. The only real issue with the approach is that it makes a first playthrough feel artificially short because, as players, we’re conditioned to expect a spoon fed eureka moment before the credits roll — one that never comes.
The crux of the game’s combat is Red’s ability to freeze time, letting the player plan out all of her action in advance. It’s as far removed from “action” as any “action-RPG” could be, but the sheer volume of skills keeps things exciting. Because this variety is so important, every time that Red’s health empties she temporarily loses access to one of her abilities. This will drive some people crazy, but it’s a well intentioned initiative to force experimentation.
There is an attempt to have a few of the enemies inform some of the game’s fiction —which is really cool— but ultimately isn’t fleshed out enough to make combat feel like an important part of the story. It’s a shame to see the idea present, but unsuccessful, since most of what you will be doing is combat.
Separate from its visual design, the game is able to characterize its silenc(ed) protagonist by giving the player a handful of opportunities to see her acting outside of combat. These subtle moments don’t usually go any further than a single button press, but they go a long way to setting up Red and her sidekick, “the talking sword,” as much more involved in the conflict than they would have been, relying exclusively on art direction. This kind of characterization is also ongoing through the music; Red has lost her voice, but you can have her hum the tune of whatever music is playing in the background. Whether or not all of the game’s music reflects her psyche is up for debate, but it certainly rings true for songs with lyrics.
For a game that can be so intentionally vague, it has such clear intent. The visual and audio design could have created something as singular as Journey, but it chooses to be a combat-driven game because it wanted to be. The story isn’t especially complex, but it chooses —and succeeds— at making a vague and surreal experience. There are so many small flourishes that elevate the game to something thoughtful. And it’s just so cool. It moves.
- This is going to be an extremely polarizing game.
- I was shocked how straightforward the story seemed when I began my second playthrough. There is no missing puzzle piece, it was easier to swallow once I had adjusted to everything else.
- The game’s composer, Darren Korb, is the best.
- Everything aesthetic positively oozes style.
- Pressing L1 makes Red hum, pressing R1 makes her throw the transistor into the air and catch it — these are things I loved.
- There are so many small, subtle moments I struggled to avoid talking about.
- “The Spine” is my favourite song in the game.
- Finding out every ability has three different functions is a pretty startling realization.
- Some of the visual cues are hard to spot, but I’m hesitant to criticizes them because of how perfectly unified things are.