VIDEOGAMES FOR TABLETOP GAMERS : TRANSISTOR
Playing video games can be like playing a musical instrument. Much like a musician, a gamer must properly execute a sequence of actions, optimized to attain a desired result. As the musician must successfully and musically navigate his set of scores to produce a complete song, so must the gamer navigate the levels and obstacles in a game in order to win it. Likewise, playing Transistor can be likened to playing a piece of music, perhaps more so than with other games.
Developed and released in 2014 by independent video game company “Supergiant Games”, Transistor is an isometric Action RPG which shares similarities with Supergiant’s “Bastion” which was released in 2011. You can get Transistor for Windows, Mac, Linux, PlayStation consoles, and, as of June 11th, the iOS.
I will try to avoid as many spoilers as possible during this review.
I truly do not believe that there is a singular apt word to summarize the world of Transistor. Not wanting to give away any spoilers, the world the story takes place in can be described as a blend of Blade Runner-esque science-fiction noir, the computer-like cyberspace of Tron, and heavy influences from the Art Noveau movement. Like Tron, the inhabitants of Cloudbank, the city, and Cloudbank itself in the story are and portrayed and treated like computer programs and pieces of software, something that reflects itself in the game’s jargon. Whether or not the story takes place in an actual computer or in a world where the digital realm has been merged with the physical is open for interpretation.
The story follows Red, a singer in Cloudbank, and a mysterious sword called the Transistor which contains the talkative very not overbearing consciousness of an unknown man (charmingly voiced by Logan Cunningham). Throughout the story, they are attacked by an invading army or robot-like lifeforms called the Process which is tearing Cloudbank apart.
Transistor has two main gameplay elements which manages to make the game feel unique while keeping in with the lore’s digital aesthetic. Combat can be divided into two parts: the programming phase or “Turn() Phase” and the execution of said programming phase. As you enter combat, you will be able to active it and plot out your movement and actions while your enemies will be frozen in time, giving you as much time as you would like to strategize. Every action you makes takes up a certain amount of the “action bar” so you will have to plan out your strategy accordingly. In between Turn() phases, you will not be able to perform most of your attacks while your action bar refills. You will also have to anticipate the movement of different enemies during Turn() so you don’t end up hitting the air.
The attacks and actions you can perform are referred to as Functions. What makes them so satisfying and intriguing to use is the ability to alter the wide variety of different Functions with another to change the way the Function is played to fit different strategies and playstyles. In the lore of the game, Functions are digital remnants of deceased citizens of Cloudbank absorbed into the Transistor, with each Function correlating to the citizen’s previous personality and occupation.
Simplicity is key as each purpose of each Function (e.g. the Switch() Function essentially “switching” enemies to your side and Crash() temporarily disabling or “crashing” your opponents) is very clearly understood and very easy to use. This leads to high replayability as you experiment with different Function combinations. Functions can also be used as passive buffs.
Balancing gameplay with storytelling, the game actually encourages you to try out different Functions as either an active ability, a modification to an active ability, or as a passive by giving you little titbits of lore about the dead characters which the Functions embody, revealing more about Cloudbank bit by bit. As good as the story is, it never gets in the way of gameplay.
Combat is also kept interesting by the wide variation of enemies that keep “upgrading” as you progress throughout the game. You will often try to create an effective setup of Functions in anticipation of a particularly difficult array of enemies only to have to change your strategy because it doesn’t work well on a different set of enemies.
While the gameplay works well on its own, the key factor that gels everything together is the usage and placement of visuals. If the mechanics of the game were notes on the music sheet, the mise-en-scene or the visual design of the gameplay would be the performance directions. Every aspect of design is evidently crafted with a specific feeling to invoke in mind.
Big credit has to be given to artists Jen Zee and Josh Barnett who designed the sleek visuals and art for Transistor: the environments are deliciously rendered in a vibrant yet mellowed colour pallet and each enemy is designed to have a distinct look so you’ll never get them confused. It’s also loads of fun to watch the animations of different Functions play out during execution.
Last but not least, what really makes the game effective in its presentation is the dreamy soundtrack composed by Darren Korb who himself has described it as “old-world electronic post-rock”. The soundtrack also contains full songs sung by Ashley Lynn Barrett, songs which I’ve been listening to ever since I heard them in game.
All in all, Transistor is a near perfect game. It sets out to do what it intends to accomplish and never feels too ambitious. Oftentimes, games can run the risk of trying to be too complicated with its gameplay, something developers Amir Rao and Greg Kasavin of Supergiant have managed to avoid by having a strong philosophy of simplicity. While the story doesn’t run too long (I might say it runs just long enough) it has an ending which has an effectively emotional impact. Strong and varied gameplay balanced with an interesting narrative presented with effective visuals and music makes Transistor a game to be experienced, a game that will probably stay in your memory for quite a long time.