The phrase “style over substance” does not have a positive connotation. It conjures up something akin to a car that looks really sporty, but has nothing under the hood and doesn’t run as fast as it looks. This isn’t entirely fair, because something can have plenty to offer under the hood, but that performance can be overshadowed by incredibly stylish flair. This is exactly the case with Transistor, although it’s a game that is “more style than substance,” but when you have style out the wazoo like this, even the most robust substance will be overshadowed; and Transistor has substance for those willing to scratch beyond its gorgeous surface.
The story throws you right in the middle of the action and, throughout its course, leaves you with more questions than answers. You are Red, a popular singer who narrowly missed being killed during one of her concerts by a cabal called The Camerata as part of a larger plot called The Process that’s thinning out the population. Although Red survived the attack, she lost her voice and found a sentient sword called Transistor that becomes her guiding voice while she’s on the run and seeking answers. Why is the Camerata after Red? What is The Process? Who else is/was on the Camerata hit list and why? Just what in the world is going on in the city of Cloudbank? Questions like these are the driving force of Transistor’s story.
The answers do not come easy in this game. The Process has already claimed a lot of inhabitants, so there are few, if any, people to ask. Those who have been freshly killed can have their subconscious stored within Transistor and harnessed into combat skills. The more these skills are used, the more you can harness information about the person they’re based on, using special terminals throughout Cloudbank that act as save points and equipment menus. Aside from these menu/save terminals are other terminals interspersed throughout the game that offer news and even social media type snippets. The questions are whether this information is biased and if Red should, say, risk posting a comment to a news article when she’s trying to cover her tracks.
The game follows a very linear progression for its 9-11 hour duration, but some decisions presented throughout warrant inclusion of a New Game + mode. For example, when Red levels up, she has a choice between several skills she can attach to Transistor. Each skill offers different insights and NPC backstories, so multiple playthroughs are necessary to see everything. Some players might lament that the plot isn’t explicitly presented to them the way it is in more expository RPG narratives and may write off Transistor as shallow because they only saw the bare essentials of the plot. Transistor is not the deepest RPG out there, but it is far from superficial, and player efforts to delve deeper are rewarded.
The stylish graphics showcase clean, colorful environments that look like the kind of futuristic city you want to visit, but may not want to live in. The isometric point of view puts everything in great view of the player, but the camera is zoomed so far away that the true creativeness of the enemy designs is lost on the players, because their coolest traits are in the subtle details. I also liked that enemies were given names like “jerk” or “cheerleader,” which imparted a dryly twisted sense of humor to everything.
Given the game’s linear nature, there isn’t much in the way of exploration. Therefore, the lion’s share of the gameplay is combat. The combat itself is fun, and the game ends quickly enough that it does not feel too repetitive. The final battle is easily the most fun and engaging battle in the game. Some players may find the game skewed easy, but “limiters” can be found throughout the game to give players handicaps for more of a challenge.
The battles themselves occur in real time, but when the “turn” button is activated, play is suspended in a “bullet time” way, and players can map out a bunch of actions for Red to take in succession. Once that turn is finished, real time resumes and it’s a matter of staying out of harm’s way until “turn” can be used again. Judicious use of that and the real time combat is important in battle. I’ve seen Transistor’s battle system compared to that of the first Parasite Eve game, and I think that’s a reasonable comparison.
Red does not have numerical hit points, but she has a life bar. When that life bar runs out, she loses one of her four equipped skills in exchange for a life bar refill so she can keep fighting. Once she loses all four of her equipped skills, it’s game over. In order to recover her lost skills, Red needs to visit two save/menu terminals and equip different skills in the meantime. Therefore, it’s a good idea to get acquainted with all the available skills rather than just spam your favorites.
Controls are properly optimized for the tablet interface. Supergiant’s previous game, Bastion, translated extremely well to tablets, and Transistor follows suit as well. Both the virtual D-pad (labeled “classic control”) and the point-and-tap interface work very well, though I found myself switching out between the two throughout the game, depending on context. For example, during the bullet-time turn mode in battles, I preferred the point-and-tap interface, because it allowed Red to move from point A to point B most efficiently. However, I preferred the D-pad for any real-time combat or exploration, because it just felt more natural. In either case, having options is great, and being able to switch up those options on the fly is even better.
Sound is easily Transistor’s strongest aspect. The voiceovers are convincingly done and the music is extremely good. The cyberpunk style music sounds great within the context of the game and sounds just as good, if not better, outside the game. The vocal themes like “Paper Boats” are hauntingly beautiful. The loading screen says “headphones recommended” for good reason. This game should definitely be played with headphones on to get the full sonic experience.
The iOS version of Transistor brought me joy equivalent to a summer blockbuster film. The graphics are stylish, the sound is gorgeous, the gameplay is fun, and the story is cinematic. Some players may find the game too short or skewed easy, but those are not problems to me. I’d rather have a short, intense game to an artificially padded one, and Transistor has limiters throughout the game that can be activated for a better challenge. I think a lot of the complaints lobbied against Transistor are purely matters of taste, because the game really doesn’t do anything wrong. I enjoyed having this melancholy adventure on my iPad, and I’m sure others will too.