Transistor is a game about exploration, and it shows how exploration can both succeed and fail. The weakest parts of Transistor's story can feel like a pathless forest, leading the player forward blindly without providing moments of clarity. But exploring the game's combat proves incredibly satisfying. It encourages the player's creativity, enticing unexpected detours that open new vistas of possibility. Supergiant Games has a keen grasp of how to build place from small details, but it's the action that makes Transistor a game worth playing. 

The system underlying the action seems basic enough at first. Players are given a set of four commands called functions assigned to each face button on the controller, and the ability to execute them in a single instantaneous sequence called a turn. These functions can range from melee attacks, to tractor beams, to quick dashes, to debuffs, and more. You play from an isometric view, exploring new areas and dispatching various foes. They attack in real time, and you wait and dodge until you can set up the most effective possible turn you can. Simple enough, right? 

Except each function can also be placed in one of an active function's two passive slots to change its properties, as well as in a general character passive slot. This raises the amount of different functions you can equip from the 16 you accumulate over the course of the game to close to a thousand different individual effects, and an absurd number of potential loadouts. It's almost impossible to explore all the possibilities.

Luckily, Transistor takes its time introducing different elements of the system one by one, layering on new functions with each level up, slowly unlocking more memory space, function slots, and difficulty-altering, experience-boosting limiters. It's a pleasant curve, with its only drawback being that the game ends just as the player finishes getting all their abilities. The New Game Plus option is mandatory if one wants to tinker with every bit of the combat system.

That system was rewarding enough that I didn't hesitate to jump back in again after the credits ran. At first, it might seem most logical to use the burst attack of your turn at every opportunity, but since you can't take actions while your turn is recharging, overusing it will lead to a lot of running around being helpless. Finding the right balance of real-time action and turn's burst takes a lot of practice, but it feels rewarding to get right, and gives the action of the game a very unique rhythm.

With all the options available in the game, it can be tempting to find one set that seems best and stick with it. To discourage that, the game does a few things that encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone with different function combinations. One method is the game's death penalty, which revives the player on the spot, but makes one of their functions unusuable for a few save points. The other is a system of story unlocks. Each function is tied to a character in the world, and by using every function in different ways, the player receives a bit of that character's story.

Story tidbits might feel meaningless in other games, but they're critical here. The details of Transistor's plot are given rarely and sparingly, like precious heirlooms. The game starts in media res, and offers few opportunities to catch up. Your protagonist, Red, is a singer whose speech was taken from her at the game's outset. She withdraws a talking sword, the Transistor, from a man's corpse, and they set out to take revenge.

Transistor uses similar storytelling techniques as the developer's previous game, Bastion, with the talking sword narrating your way through an unfamiliar world. But unlike Bastion's narrator, who commentated on your actions as if he were telling a story, the Transistor speaks as a character in the world, someone the player quickly learns had a close relationship with Red before being forced inside the pseudonymous cybersword that serves as the source of her combat abilities. Since he's not that interested in telling Red things she already knows, the game starts with you in the dark, and it keeps you there.

The story is at its strongest in two respects. One is the presentation of the city of Cloudbank, a science fiction techno-metropolis of marble walkways, gilded streetlamps, canals, and gleaming skyscrapers. Governed by an apathetic mess of direct democracy, the game uses incidental narrator comments, environmental presentation, and a series of info-terminals to portray a city soaked in a media stew of information and distractions that call parallels to our own internet-connected world. More crucially, important points of specificity build the player's familiarity with the city, making it feel like a place worth defending. I was more saddened by the idea of the world-swallowing Process, the antagonists you spend most of the game fighting, destroying Red's favorite sandwich shop than I was when I learned they wiped out a city block. Especially after I had the opportunity to order a sub for her to eat.

The story also succeeds in developing Red and the disembodied voice of her sword into a strong, devoted pair. With one as a body without a voice, and the other a voice without a body, they complement each other well. The voice of the Transistor encourages, comforts, reminisces about old memories, and paints a convincing portrait of a shadow of a relationship that can no longer go back to what it was. Even more critically, the aforementioned computer terminals give the otherwise-silent Red a chance to establish her own voice, and show her determination and her vulnerability. The game's ending recognizes this strength, giving Transistor's final moments a profound impact.

Unfortunately, the basic motivations of the game's antagonists remain a riddle wrapped in an engima even after the credits finish running. Red's target for revenge is the Camerata, a shadowy cabal of four individuals that have links to the Transistor and the Process. But why, exactly, do they exist? What do they want to achieve? How did they marshal the resources they have? In answering those questions, Transistor frequently prefers obfuscation and suggestion to any sort of clear answer, even in late-game moments of exposition. As much as I love subtle storytelling, this game trends too far in that direction with its plot, causing the Camerata to feel formless and unreal, little more than an arbitrary enemy to defeat.

So as good as the 'trees' of Transistor's setting might be (I'm particularly fond of the 'hum' button that harmonizes with the background music), its 'forest' can be confusing and uncertain. Fortunately, there's always the game's combat to explore. Even after finishing all the combat challenges inside the game's 'backdoor' interludes and getting deep into its New Game Plus, I still find new, viable, fun combinations of functions to use. Discovering a new way to use my abilities makes me feel like I've created a new vista for myself. And that's always rewarding.

 

Final Score: 7/10

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