"I would rather have watched a friend play Transistor than have experienced it on my own."
Transistor poses quite a conundrum for this reviewer. Often times beautiful and sublime, yet basking in obfuscation and self-indulgence, Supergiant Games' latest effort appears more concerned with creating questions and theories rather than telling an informative or elaborate narrative. Worse still, Transistor's gameplay lacks the bite and strategy necessary to push a player forward in a world far more interested in looking good rather than actually saying anything of value. It's art for art's sake, putting style ahead of substance in the worst way possible. But still, it is damn pretty.
Transistor tells the story of Red, a young woman who has lost her voice and comes into possession of the titular sword-like object called the Transistor. This sword does... something? Unfortunately, the narrative structure of the game plays out like a dream, with fantastical visuals that lack any real connection or feeling. The Process (a phrase that eventually brought a foul cringe to my face with every inane utterance) threatens the city of Cloudbank, though the Transistor can stop and turn back the corruption of the town and her citizens. Transistor attempts to bridge the gap between gameplay and story by encouraging players to explore and try out new combat techniques, but the story is told through text boxes and audio logs rather than through action and consequence. With the exception of the stylistically amazing final encounter, very little actually happens in Cloudbank. You see the aftermath, with the city feeling far too dead to care about.
Visually, Transistor exudes a style and artistry not often seen in our medium. Colorful and sorrowful, the art-deco by way of Bladerunner design grabs the eye and demands attention. The color palette deserves special mention, as Transistor is a welcome change from the grim and gray look of many modern games. Supergiant Games continues to astound from a musical standpoint as well. The gentle hums and female vocals help the world come alive when the story fails to engage.
Combat consists of real time attacks and an intriguing mechanic that allows Red to stop time and select targets with specific abilities. It makes a remarkable first impression, admittedly. Pushing an enemy so they are in line with others for a heavy attack gave me great satisfaction during the opening hour of gameplay. Leveling Red allows one to further customize the Transistor. Attacks range from large explosions, swift dashes, and a particularly effective side effect that turns enemies to your side. You can even attach abilities in support slots with other abilities. Maybe your dash produces a clone to distract enemies, or the basic sword crash can bounce between foes for some light damage. Experimentation is encouraged, but only because combat becomes repetitive quickly. With only a few enemy types and very little in the way of environmental interactions, Transistor turns stale quickly.
Transistor works better from the standpoint of an observer rather than a player. A couple of rather awful decisions take away any sort of urgency from the player. There's little feedback in terms of what is actually happening on screen, for example. The only indication that you're taking any sort of damage is a depleting health bar, giving combat a distinctly distant feeling. Many enemy attacks also litter the screen with so much clutter that things become rather uncomfortable. Enemies seem to hide in the game's large HUD, and you can't move the camera at all with the right analog stick. As battlegrounds become larger and more intricate stylistically, I would often lose sight of the last enemy, forcing me to wander around aimlessly looking for that last target.
More baffling is Transistor's lack of any real challenge or sense of reward. You don't die upon depletion of your health bar but rather lose one of your four combat abilities. The fight continues as long as you still have one ability left, and you regain lost skills upon reaching a save point. This bizarre design choice takes away all tactics and makes combat feel arbitrary. There aren't any tangible rewards for playing smart or efficiently, so why not just attack enemies quickly to get out of combat as fast as possible? Players eventually unlock Limiters, which strengthen enemies, but there's no real reason to do so. I'm all for trying out new ways to handle death and gameplay in video games, but Transistor's combat feels more like a speedbump than an integral part of the experience.
Perhaps most egregious is the way the turn-based combat doesn't entirely work as advertised. Planning and tactics are necessary for quick battles, but the game is rather inconsistent in how events actually play out. I can't even count the number of times I was set up for a backstab only to miss the enemy when time unfroze. A few technical problems with the PC version added to my sense that Transistor isn't as mechanically sound as it could be. Some menus obviously come from the PS4 version of the game and feature button layouts not present on a computer, and I hit a few blank screens that required me to minimize the game temporarily.
Transistor attempts to bridge the various artistic aspects present within video games but actually manages to further stratify them into categories. Combat distracts from the elaborate art and sound design, and the attempt to link story with gameplay leaves things feeling muddled and inconsistent. A deep-voiced narration can't create tension or emotion on its own, and that's where Transistor truly missteps. I would rather have watched a friend play Transistor than have experienced it on my own. What can you say about a game that's meant to be watched rather than played?