Birb Friends Review: Transistor (PC)

Transistor is an isometric tactical action RPG (although this description doesn’t do its systems justice) developed by Supergiant Games and released in May of 2014 for a variety of systems including PS4, Windows, Mac, Linux, and later, in 2015, for iOS. After the success of 2011’s indie darling Bastion, a successor to the game was envisioned and began to be produced with private funds. Bastion’s team of developers, sound designers, and artists all contributed to Transistor making for a equally stunning release. Transistor’s gameplay nearly mirrors Bastion’s, but the focus on restoring a single town and maintaining centrality in that area are gone and instead replaced with a simple linear progression which, while being mildly disappointing, doesn’t detract from the experience and feels more streamlined than Bastion’s loops. Transistor’s greatest achievements lie in its aesthetics; both visually and aurally the game is stunning. That being said, there is a depth to the symbolism present in Transistor’s world, a symbolism that is easily lost amidst the insufficiently exposited narrative of the game.

To detail my experiences with Transistor, I’ve prepared a scoring system in which certain aspects of the game are weighted more than others. I’ve separated the system into two primary scores: Technical Proficiency and Artistic Proficiency. Each score will be explained below and numerous subscores from which they are derived will be supported with qualitative evidence. Please note that all scores are out of 100 and 50 is the benchmark for the average title on the market. A 50 is NOT a bad score, it’s an average score.

Transistor Logo - Transistor
Transistor Logo (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)
Technical Proficiency: 82/100

Technical Proficiency is a combined score composed of three main scores: Visuals, Sound, and Controls. This score is meant to detail the spectacle of the experience and how well the sensory artists and programmers crafted the game.

Overall Visuals Score: 75.75/100

  • Style Score: 69/100
  • Animation Score: 80/100
  • Purpose Score: 77/100

Transistor follows in the tradition of Bastion in its use of highly saturated colors but the application of these colors is just slightly more selective than in Bastion. Reds, oranges, greens, and yellows dominate Transistor’s cyberpunk landscape. Dramatic shifts to warmer colors and brighter surroundings almost always worked to increase tension in dangerous or climactic situations. Loading screens between areas take the form of side scrolling rides on a motorbike full of context cementing buildings and background landscapes. Enemies are all entirely similar in aesthetic which serves narrative excellently but isn’t an interesting or engaging visual choice. Characters, however, have color themed designs expressive of their profession and personality; it’s a necessary expression in the face of an utter lack of interaction or exposition for most characters. For its selective and dynamic color palette, uniform enemies, and replication of a well established style Transistor receives a 69/100 for its style score.

The animations of Transistor are many times cleaner than Bastion’s animations. Cluckers bounce about on the spindles of their feet, Fetches prowl and leap, and Jerks rumble with enraged energy. Shifting perspectives during transitional pieces and areas is also seamless and smooth, displaying a three dimensional space despite the two dimensional engine. Red’s animations, from her deft flourish to her simple hum, are all sleek, expressive, and proper improvements to Bastion’s Kid. All that being said, a larger degree of variation in animation would have been appreciated. Transistor earns a 80/100 in the animation category.

Transistor doesn’t give perfect indications of where the player is in the world and whether their attacks and abilities will work as the player intends. That is to say, Transistor’s isometric view lacks clarity until the turn function is active. Once the player is planning their turn, the game takes on a whole new perspective, rather appropriately, and dots cleanly explain every obstacle in the main character Red’s way and the effect of every possible approach. Indicators for enemy attacks and movements aren’t as telegraphed as they were in Bastion, but the lack of awareness that the turn function’s clarity can bring is interesting in narrative sense and brings Red’s focus to clear relief. For these reasons, Supergiant Games’ sophomore effort receives an 77/100 for its visual purpose score.

Overall Sound Score: 77/100

  • Music Score: 80/100
  • Sound Effects Score: 77/100
  • Variety Score: 65/100

Transistor’s music almost entirely consists of light, thoughtful guitar and relatively uniform percussive elements that periodically crack into the sound. Thematically melding the humanity and physicality of the guitar’s expression with the digital and rhythmic precision of the percussion directly matches the game’s overarching message on the integration of technology into our very identities. Similarly, the way each area is given a nearly identical arrangement that only receives slight variations dependent on the enemies present in that area mirrors the plot of the game’s Cloudbank city. Vocal pieces, performed by two time collaborator Ashley Barrett, give incredible amounts of foreshadowing and understanding to those that listen as well as being pleasing to the ear. Sadly, they are placed at odd instances in the game that don’t always seem logical in reference to their content. I look forward to seeing more diversity in Barrett’s performance, especially in terms of vocal technique, as she explores artistic territory in the future. Hopefully some of that exploration will be in conjunction with Supergiant Games, but for now Transistor receives a score of 80/100 for its music score.

In my review of Bastion, I bemoaned the massive amount of information being relayed to the user as they try to decipher the plot information given to them aurally by the narrator. In Transistor, this issue seems to be inverted, though not entirely reversed. Not only is the narrator put to little use in relaying pertinent plot information, (more often than not that information comes from the music, text-based terminals, or function ability mechanic) but no resolution was made to resolve the issue of the narrator’s voice becoming drenched in other sound effects to the point of losing recognition. A perfect opportunity to resolve this would have been within the Turn() function, an ability that allows Red to plan out her next moves using the eponymous Transistor that houses the narrator, but instead the narrator’s voice fizzles out with the rest of the background noise when using Turn(). Regardless, sound effects are still functional in relating game happenings to the player and pleasant to hear. In total, Transistor receives a 77/100 in the sound effects category.

Transistor’s score has variety of a certain kind. It bounces between vocal tracks and instrumentals frequently enough, but the lack of ingenuity in variety is its main failure. While Bastion’s tracks frequently mixed the different styles present in its many inspirations, Transistor is a singularly focused affair that doesn’t incorporate facets of its inspiration, or rather the facets of its inspiration’s inspiration. I would have liked to see wider instrumentation and perhaps some tracks with jazz influence. If anything can be said to be lacking from Transistor’s aural landscape, it is variety. For this reason, Transistor receives a 65/100 in the sound variety category.

Overall Controls Score: 92.22/100

Wallpaper - Transistor

  • Controller Score: 95/100
  • Responsiveness Score: 95/100
  • Functionality Score: 90/100

Transistor supports many different controllers across many different platforms. I chose to use a keyboard and mouse during my playthrough. Initially, keyboard and mouse controls felt as if they weren’t the intended method of control, but after modifying the key mappings to match the control scheme of League of Legends, they felt right at home. Controllers, especially Xbox 360 controllers, are also usable on the PC platform, but I didn’t use them for my playthrough. Transistor receives a 95/100 for its controller score.

Lagging inputs, disconnections, and incorrect responses were absent from my experiences with Transistor. The only issue of responsiveness I had during my playthrough was screen tearing that at times made it difficult to judge motion correctly or generally distracted from the experience. After changing setting in accordance to troubleshooting instruction found online, my screen tearing was greatly diminished but never removed. That being said, Transistor is nearly perfect in responsiveness on almost all counts and for that it receives a 95/100 in the responsiveness category.

While there was ease in action during gameplay, the main issue of functionality comes in the needlessly convoluted function selection system. Consolidating this system to a single screen would have significantly streamlined my experience as most of my time was spent contemplating the uses of Red’s function in the selection system. Despite this, the controls allowed Red to crash, jaunt, shock, mask, flourish, and more with grace. For this it receives a 90/100 in the functionality category.

Process - Transistor
A collection of Process cells glance at an engraved Transistor marking. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)
Artistic Proficiency: 84/100

Artistic Proficiency is a combined score composed of two main scores: Gameplay and Story. This score is meant to detail the meaning of the experience and how well the writers, directors, and designers crafted that meaning into the game.

Overall Gameplay Score: 85.67/100

Snapshot - Transistor
Red crashes the ground as a Snapshot glares. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)
  • Agency Score: 100/100
  • Core Gameplay Loop Score: 85/100
  • Variety Score: 46/100

Transistor is ultimately a game about the loss of personal power and, in a large sense, what power is in and of itself. The different ways the game allows, and disallows, you to enact your own will fits these themes. A passive, active, and secondary slot is available to place any function, the game’s term for ability, into. Experimenting with these slots not only allows you to diversify the experiences you’ll have in the game but also allows you to customize your skillset not just to your personal taste, but to the road ahead. These are all very personal effects, they have an impact upon yourself and so, in a very limited way, also have an impact upon the structure that supports the outside world, in this game that structure is exemplified by the robotic enemies known as the Process and further confirmed by the Spine of the World. Furthermore, seeking out information about the practical uses of each ability simultaneously brings understanding of the personal history of those who the ability belonged to. If you fail to use this understanding, the function is lost for a time until the integrity of your authority over it is reestablished. Transistor’s ludic representation and dissection of the interweaving systems we come to know and understand in our own lives is brilliantly spoken with the game itself. For this reason, I give Transistor a perfect score of 100/100 in the agency category.

The core gameplay loop of Transistor is as follows: prepare to enter area by assigning functions and limiters, sight enemies and enter the ()Turn function to plan, set out a path of functions to use during the turn, allow the functions to take place, dodge and protect yourself during the vulnerable cooldown period after using ()Turn, repeat until the enemies are defeated, continue to the next area, and repeat (probably by swapping functions and limiters in order to receive the interesting exposition contained within usage unlockables). Transistor’s core gameplay loop is much closer to proper alignment than Bastion’s. Transistor never forces you to use a function unless you’ve made a mistake or are attempted a formulated challenge, and its rewards for doing so are much more incentivizing and purposeful. All that being said, ()Turn tended to allow me to dissociate from the actual happenings of the game (which I believe to be intended) in a way that diminished my enjoyment of the active experience, and the formulated challenges of Transistor seemed far more superfluous than those in Bastion. For these reasons I give Transistor an 85/100 as its core gameplay loop score.

In scoring the variety of Transistor, the fact that it only holds two separate modes of play is definitely considered. Transistor is truly a linear and singular experience. Perhaps more prominently, and importantly, is the fact that Transistor seems painfully unfinished. Relationships are told instead of shown and developed (although some of this seems deliberate in light of the story, not all of it does), boss battles are relatively inconsequential or significantly mismatched to their rising action, and a single playthrough left me considerably bewildered and discontent by the lack of closure and information. For those reasons, Transistor receives a 46/100 in the variety category.

Overall Story Score: 82/100

Red and Cloudbank - Transistor
The Transistor’s User speaks to Red with a powerful blue glow as Cloudbank hangs in the balance. (Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)
  • Characters Score: 83/100
  • Plot Score: 80/100
  • Coherency Score: 83/100

Where Bastion’s characters wrestled personally with their identities, thoughts, desires, guilts, and actions, Transistor’s characters are devoid of deep thought and moving development. The only epiphany Transistor holds for its characters is the bleakest one imaginable, which is perhaps symbolic of the greater realization Supergiant intends for us to learn about technology, power, and individualism. Regardless, the voice acting and design of the villains of Transistor’s Cloudbank city leaves something to be desired. As with Bastion, I wish a longer amount of time was dedicated to learning about these characters. All this considered, Transistor receives an 83/100 as its character score.

The plot of Transistor is ripe with symbolism of many sorts and pulls out all the stops in terms of exploring its main themes. That being said, many players of Transistor will find it hard to understand just why or how anything is happening within Transistor’s world of Cloudbank. The greatest obstacle to understanding the meaning of Transistor is the self imposed ambiguity that surrounds the game. In Bastion this ambiguity is to a much lesser extent and allows the player to enjoy the game as both a base level experience and as something greater, but Transistor’s ambiguity reduces the experience to its most contemplative and philosophical parts, disallowing the consumption of the game as a traditional, surface level experience. All that being said, the plot of Transistor is interesting, integrated to gameplay, and complete which is why it receives an 80/100 in the plot category.

Transistor never struck me as a powerful experience and, in retrospect, I don’t think it truly was. The coherency of Transistor as an experience came to me in the analysis and thought I devoted to the game after its completion. Plot and characters in Transistor that seemed discordant or out of place at first were revealed to be purposefully so when viewed in light of the experience as a whole. It is my personal hypothesis that Transistor takes on its greatest value in replay sessions and with the real-life application of what can be learned within the game in mind. For these reasons Transistor receives an 83/100 in the coherency category.


FINAL VERDICT

Box Art - Transistor
(Image credit to Supergiant Games, retrieved from their official Transistor page)

Above the surface, Transistor is a confusing blur of beautiful art accompanied by pleasant music and engaging gameplay. Below the surface, Transistor is a nuanced statement on the modern notions of control, technology, autonomy, power, change, democracy, and the individual. Transistor’s downfalls lie in its presentation of concepts and failure to teach its players about the story they are acting within. What it lacks in character development, it makes up for in thematic perfection, beautiful art, and solid gameplay. It’s my hope that Supergiant Games’ future endeavors, such as Pyre, are able to present a cohesive story of longer length while maintaining the great attributes of previous endeavors. Diversity in game design would also be a welcome addition to Pyre, as Bastion and Transistor are, in their most basic components, comparable experiences. At the Steam Sale price of $4, Transistor definitely earned its purchase. If you’re interested in strategizing with a variety of self explanatory tools, analyzing deep works of symbolic fiction, seeing beautiful things, and hearing gorgeous performances, Transistor is the right game for you. I’ll see you in the Country.


83/100 – Wonderful!

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Author: Shane Nichols

Co-founder and blogger at Birb Friends. I like a variety of games and celebrate game design that uses game mechanics to tell stories. You can catch me writing comparison posts, in depth game reviews, and game design articles, as well as with Noah Stites in our YouTube let's play show TheDPadShow.

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