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Transistor Review: While My Sword Gently Weeps
The sentient or talking weapon has always been one of my favorite story-telling devices. Even when it’s used as a repeating gag, like with Baldur’s Gate II’s pompous and one-liner spouting two-handed sword Lilarcor, I still love it. Supergiant Games’ sophomore follow-up to Bastion, Transistor, takes the talking sword concept into a whole new level as it becomes your sole companion and ally throughout the gorgeous and dangerous city of Cloudbank. The action-RPG fuses real time combat with turn-based tactical planning in the most elegant fashion I’ve seen since Fallout 3’s VATS, all with that signature soundtrack and intriguing story-telling that has quickly rocketed Supergiant Games among my favorite developers.
Transistor doesn’t waste any time with a lengthy intro, or even a menu screen. You begin with an intriguing still image of the murderous event that sets the stage for the entire adventure. The titular weapon speaks (with the amazing gravitas of Logan Cunningham), imploring our silent heroine Red to wield him while bemoaning her lost voice. Red was a night club singer in Cloudbank, a neo-noir futuristic city that enjoys its seemingly magically constructed world while sinister forces lie waiting in the background.
It’s Logan Cunnigham! You may remember his voice from such games as…Bastion. If you enjoy very old-school retro-style Point and Click Adventure games, you can check out more of his awesome voicework in Wadjet Eye’s Resonance and Primordia, both of which this reviewer can heartily recommend.
Basic gameplay is vastly similar to Bastion – Red levels up and earns new abilities for the sword (called Functions) that can be combined into varying loadouts. There’s no mana bar or resource system – each ability has different animations with lengthier abilities taking much longer to pull off. The most interesting concept is that each Function acts as an active ability, upgrade modification and passive slot. The Spark Function, for example, throws out a cluster of grenades as an active ability. Slot it into another Function and it typically splits the attack up (making the basic sword striking Function Crash shoot out three waves instead of one). Stick it into one of your Passive slots and it creates a different ability entirely, spawning a decoy whenever you’re attacked to help draw fire.
I was initially annoyed that I couldn’t dig into the stats of my abilities and Functions at any time, as you can only inspect your Functions at the various Access Points in the world, which also act as save points. However, there’s literally an Access Point available after every single battle in the game, making it a fair compromise with the limitation of the game engine. The Access Points also tie into Transistor’s death penalty – losing all our health activates an emergency Turn. If you get hit again, you’ll lose your most powerful Function but be restored to full health. This can happen two more times and you’ll keep losing Functions. It’s an interesting system to punish you without forcing you to restart (though eventually you’d run out and it’s back to the last Access Point). Overloaded Functions can be restored after visiting a new Access Point, so you’re usually only out that ability for one battle.
Functions vary widely from debuffing gravity wells to short range teleports to summoning your own robotic companion. With 16 total Functions and three different ways of slotting each one (and the fact that each Function combines with another in up to two Upgrade slots) you have an incredible amount of variety and custom loadouts. The real success story is that I almost never stayed with the same ones, unlike say Bastion where you quickly found the weapon combinations that suited your playstyle throughout any situation.
Part of the incentive for switching lies with what could be considered the game’s only form of collectibles. Each Function is a trace of a real person in Cloudbank. Some of them you meet and integrate into the sword, others are earned at different intervals when leveling up. Each trace has three different pieces of information tied to them (including their background and disappearance) and you can only see all three if you use a Function in all three ways.
Thankfully it’s just as fun to experiment with different combinations as it is to unlock further pieces of the story, and leveling up was perfectly paced to deal out new abilities, upgrade slots, passive slots and total memory upgrades (allowing you to equip more Functions) so as to ease you into the gameplay while always leaving you wanting just a bit more. Red’s initial battles with the merciless AI enemy known only as the Process begin simply enough, but quickly grow mesmerizing once you see all the possibilities that are created by the Turn Function.
The innate ability of the Transistor, and the reason you can stay a step ahead of the Process, is the ability to seamlessly switch to turn-based combat. With a quick press of the spacebar (or trigger on a controller) you enter Turn mode and the screen flashes to show a new tactical layer. Since each combat encounter is set up in a relatively small area the balance translates perfectly.
Red has a limited amount of actions she can do during her Turn, represented by a giant bar at the top of the screen that’s depleted by moving around or executing your favorite Functions. Bigger Functions take up more Turn time and you’re completely vulnerable during Turn Recovery while your bar recharges before you can stop time again, so knowing when to enter turn-based mode becomes critical.
Combat is definitely balanced so that the Process is much stronger than you in real time. While many Functions speed up your attacks in both real and Turn time, I found the majority of my battles trying to stay in Turn mode as much as possible. Your overall enjoyment of the gameplay will hedge greatly on how you approach this mixture; as a huge fan of turn-based combat and tactical board games, I fell madly in love with it.
The Process provide a fun and engaging variety of enemies while retaining an overall robotic aesthetic of white and red. Since they don’t speak, each enemy is given a designated name by your loquacious sword. The dog-like ones that hunt you down with a nasty bite attack are called Fetch, the radar dishes that shield their allies are Cheerleaders, the big one that slams its fists down in an area round itself is a Jerk. As you advance and encounter new enemies, old ones will be upgraded to gain new ideas. Fetch 2.0 gains stealth, making them even scarier, while Jerk 3.0 can pull you into its devastating ground and pound.
Red and the Transistor have only one lead to go on this sudden apocalyptic attack – the behind-the-scenes ruling party known as the Camerata. Its four members have all had a hand in the Process, and Red’s search for answers takes them across city streets, over rivers and parks, through night clubs and high-rise apartments. Cloudbank is crafted like something out of a dreamscape; details are often fuzzy and unimportant, but the colors and mood are vivid and striking.
Like Bastion the world-building is a wonder to behold, though with a bit less variety than I’d liked to have seen. The stark linearity can be forgiven when the gameplay is this fun and mysterious story this compelling – even to a compulsive explorer like me. Still I would’ve loved some optional paths and trinkets to collect, if just to experience more of the setting and world.
Since the artistic story-telling style, world design and basic genre gameplay elements are similar to Bastion, it makes sense that Supergiant Games would bring back the amazing Darren Korb for Transistor’s sound design. While I found the overall soundtrack a bit less exciting and varied than Bastion’s, the haunting themes are beautifully fitting for the theme of bleak hope and rebirth. Make no mistake, this is still one of the best video game soundtracks I’ve ever heard, and destined to be another classic.
Throughout Red’s journey they come across Backdoors that take us into an idyllic beachfront property, including a treehouse filled with magical Monsters Inc style doors leading to various challenge rooms. The area functions as a hub, but as the world is entirely linear (and Access Points are everywhere) its usefulness is relegated to a music box and a few fun little objects you can interact with.
The challenge rooms do a great job taking advantage of the customized loadouts and combat mechanics to make some truly unique and fun scenarios. One door gives access to Speed Tests, tasking you to defeat the Process in a certain amount of time with a certain set of abilities. Others act as a puzzle by making you defeat the Process in a single turn, or defeat waves of enemies while giving you a very limited pool of Functions to choose from. Each test has multiple versions, but are only unlocked after you progress further in the story (so it can’t spoil new enemies). They’re a fun diversion to the main story, and effectively play on the strengths of the excellent combat system.
The main story shouldn’t take more than about 10 hours, which is already a great value. Afterward you can enter Recursion mode, Transistor’s version of New Game Plus. Red begins her journey over again but with all her Functions and levels intact. Of course you’re not going to simply mow through the Process either, as all the enemies have been upgraded.
I’m usually not particularly into New Game Plus, especially for such a strong narrative-driven adventure, but I’d only scratched the surface of all the Function combinations. In fact I had only just unlocked my final Function by the end, and still had several levels (and a few upgrade and passive slots and limiters) left to unlock. I was more than eager to jump right back in and experiment and tweak various loadouts while fighting crazy new combinations of super-powered Process forces.
The ease of entry is perfect; while Transistor lacks a traditional difficulty slider, it incorporates one of the more innovative elements from Bastion in the Limiters. Limiters work exactly as the Gods in Bastion, making various elements of the Process stronger or more difficult while giving you a small experience boost. Some are minor, spawning twice as many of the respawning cells or giving those same cells small shields, while others, like making the Process strike twice as hard, turn every encounter into a harrowing ordeal, forcing you to become intimately familiar with the right combinations.
A review copy of the game was provided by Supergiant Games.