A few hours in
There is a bloody lot to functional programming.
So, I’ve played, er… let’s say ‘more’. I made my way to the stage I used to perform at. I voted, and commented, and communicated across the network. I fought dogs, and women, and a woman who turned into a dog, as well as the giant spine of the world. I called to change the weather, and the weather listened. I hummed a dozen secret tunes on a beach just to the left of reality. I ate some flatbread.
Transistor is a game of two parts, and they are the ludic part and the aesthetic part. Or the narrative part and the mechanical part, if I’m wanting to keep to my own division of labour. They are mostly separate parts, and can — and should, maybe — be talked about separately… They interact too, though. It’s a limited interaction, mostly the narrative-aesthetic bleeding into the ludo-mechanical, but nevertheless there is an interaction here that many other games only obliquely dream towards.
And if that sounds overly posh to you, well, I kind of feel that way myself. All I want to say is ‘certain mechanical aspects of Transistor take clear influence from certain aesthetic parts of it’, but something about this game is making me write all flowery. I blame the overall atmosphere, really.
Mechanically, Transistor is a game about using a highly engaging and interesting selection and customization procedure to select a subset of tools, and then using those tools to fight your way through a series of mostly linear corridors.
Yes, that does sound a little harsh. Not to mention reductionist. It’s accurate, though! The constituent elements of Transistor’s mechanical gameplay are ‘customize your Functions’ and ‘run from battle to battle’. And seeing as though there is always only really one way to ‘go’, the environments you find yourself running in amount to fairly little more than well-dressed corridors.
Transistor’s combat is usually an interesting, fairly chaotic jumble. Outside of Turn()-mode, the real-time nature of the combat actually makes it rather difficult to control: damage comes fast, abilities are hard to aim, and in any fight with more than three enemies, it’s almost impossible to accurately take the positioning and special abilities of everyone involved into account. I got through most real-time fights by spamming my go-to abilities until everything died — but more on that later.
The use of Turn() turns combat from a frantic brawl into an almost casual puzzle mode. Nothing in Turn() is permanent until you activate it again, so you’re free to mix and match movement and abilities. Transistor helpfully tells you which abilities combo, what enemies are immune or out of range, and what other special factors will be in play.
Turn() doesn’t tell you everything: certain effects, like the upgraded dogs’ cloak or the Younglady’s teleport-after-being-hit, are not taken into account, as are involuntary enemy movement effects. But for the most part, Turn() is a very WYSIWYG way of approaching a battle.
Of course, after getting out of Turn(), most or all of your abilities will be disabled for a short time… necessitating running around or hiding while your energy bar fills back up. Unless you’ve set your upgrades right…
For me, battles in Transistor primarily amount to another chance to mess around with new ability builds. The Function system in this game is… I don’t think I’m particularly overselling it if I call it ‘a customizer’s dream’. It’s flexible, fun, easy to learn but hard to master, and have I mentioned the lore incentives? Because there are lore incentives.
I’ve briefly hinted at how this system works on the previous page, but here’s another primer: your sword, the Transistor, has access to a slowly expanding set of Functions based on the people whose souls it steals. Each Function can be equipped as an active skill, as an upgrade to an active skill, or as a general passive skill: you have four active slots with one upgrade space each at the start, and you gain more skill-upgrade slots and passive upgrade slots throughout play. Oh, and there’s a Memory cap on how many skills you can use at a time.
The beauty of this system is in how much internal sense it makes. This, too, I’ve mentioned before. Crash() stuns and weakens, so Crash() as a skill upgrade adds stun and weakening to most other skills… and Crash() as a passive makes you immune to stuns and boosts your defenses. Long-range Breach() adds range to other skills, or gives you more Turn()-planning as a passive. Bounce() makes other skills bounce, or passively provides… a damage shield? Okay, so they don’t all make incredible sense.
The point stands, though: each Function has Active_Effect, Upgrade_Effect and Passive_Effect, and it’s up to you to slot those together. Different combinations of Functions and upgrades don’t always play the way you’d expect them to, but the game provides all of this information at any time while skill-building.
Oh, and have I mentioned different Function combinations have different visual effects, too?
Now, not all Function combos are created equal. I don’t even know why I would ever not run with Bounce(Crash();Breach()), for instance. And might I recommend Spark(Switch();Purge()) for particularly tricky spots? Switch changes enemy allegiance for a while, which normally makes them immune to damage… but the Purge() damage-over-time effect does not care about this. Keeps enemies out of your hair so easily, it almost feels like cheating.
Transistor attempts to counteract Function rut in three ways. Firstly, through failure penalties: if you lose all your health in combat… well, if you lose all your health and you still have Turn() open, you’ll go into ’emergency Turn()’. If you’re recharging, however, the damage is resolved differently: you’ll lose access to one of your current active Functions, the one with the highest MEM cost, for a while. Lose all your health again, and it’s another function. And so on, and so on… lose all your Functions and all your health, and it’s curtains.
Overloaded Functions aren’t disabled forever, but they are gone for a little while. Two new checkpoints, give or take. Call it an incentive to not lose all that health.
Secondly, Transistor ties snippets of world lore to your changing Function use. Every Function — based on a person’s actual soul as they are — comes with three bits of lore about that person. You unlock these by using the Function in the three different possible roles for at least one combat encounter.
The same holds for the optional difficulty modifiers, called ‘Limiters’, which hold bits of lore about the Process.
And finally, in the outside-of-reality beach house (don’t ask), Transistor hits you with a number of optional puzzle levels, aimed each at testing some aspect of your cleverness: speed, planning, careful timing, dealing with unknown functions… in most of these puzzles, you’re provided with a predefined set of functions to play with, basically forcing new perspectives on you.
All in all, Transistor’s combat is a fun exercise in combinatory thinking coupled with an okay exercise in mixing twitch-based movement fighting and turn-based combat. It provides lots upon lots of toys to play, and tries it best to make sure you don’t ‘just’ use the ones you started with and damn the rest, so as to avoid premature boredom. It doesn’t always succeed in this: I’ll still use my Bounce-Crash combo from now until the day I keel over dead, any situation you care to name. But all in all, it’s mechanically a pretty neat system of choices.
Aesthetically, Transistor is a gorgeous game. I don’t have to tell you that, do I? Its visual design is… it’s something else, definitely. Not only is the world vibrant, and beautiful, but it’s also loaded with little bits of information: mood-setters, hints, little jokes… in all honesty, the whole thing comes across as one big meta-jab at simulated realities, every now and again. I wouldn’t put it past Transistor for that to be the point, or at least a point.
Really, though. The colour use in this game…
Though that’s hardly the only interesting trick Transistor pulls.
Transistor’s audio design draws attention too, both because of its beautiful music and because of the role sound plays in parts of the narrative. For most of the game, the Transistor is the only entity that speaks. Red, the main character… something happened to her voice. We don’t know what, which is to say that I don’t know what. She doesn’t speak, but she does hum on command. No, really! If there’s music playing, Red will actually hum along with the music if you keep the button down. I… I thought that was cool, anyway.
Narratively, Transistor is a game about a city slowly falling prey to arcane forces beyond its ken. It’s a game about dealing with the unknowable, even if that unknowable manifests itself right outside your doorstep one day. It’s a game about the slippery slope of good intentions, and the lengths to which people are willing to go to do ‘the right thing’. It’s a game about the people who know what is happening, the people who only found out what was happening by falling prey to it, and the two people who, through the accident of fate, might be the only ones in any position to influence the whole shebang.
It’s a game that’s incredibly content not to overtly tell you things.
Transistor is telling a story. Or rather, Transistor is telling several stories, that all conspire to be part of a single larger story. The Process, the Camerata, the Transistor itself, Red… But Transistor isn’t necessarily telling you the story. Only Red’s movements and actions are directly put into any kind of context, and even that context is shady at best. The entire rest of is optional, in a sense: hidden behind off-the-path console news flashes, or locked inside Functions and Limiters. Transistor’s story is… is there a word that means the opposite of ‘spoon-fed’? That’s what it is, exactly that word.
Transistor does world building, but not altogether much of it. You’ll wander up and down the city of Cloudbank, and you’ll get to know its locations and inhabitants… but simultaneously, the city of Cloudbank never really feels like a city. What is it like, where did it come from? Where is it located, whereabouts, and with whom? Is it even a real city, or…? Granted, these questions might get answered later on; Transistor is nothing if not patient.
Transistor does character building, but primarily for Red and the eponymous Transistor itself. And maybe Sybil, and Ascher, and Royce… beyond them, there are no characters of note. Maybe Cloudbank feels so little like a city because there are so little people around. At some point the narrative feel has to shift from ‘two people against a conspiracy of four’ to ‘these six people are the only human beings I’ll ever run across’.
Transistor does attention building, is probably the nicest way to put it. Or perhaps an even nicer way is saying that Transistor is a mystery story: a whodunit on an urban, ethereal scale, wrapped up in the reference frame of one famous singer and the talking sword that saved her life. I was intrigued throughout, even if I didn’t understand half of what was happening most of the time. It’s part of what kept me interested enough to keep playing as long as I did, and I’ll be damned if I stop now before reaching the end of it.
Hey, I made it through almost the entire review without mentioning Bastion!
Truth is, Transistor almost invites the comparison. Both it and Bastion are isometric top-down games, mechanically combat-heavy and based on tool selection and customization and optional difficulty modifiers, and narratively revolving around a non-speaking protagonist narrated by a companion who make their way through an uncertain, rapidly changing world. I wouldn’t be surprised if Transistor’s narrative loops, too.
And if you’re going into Transistor expecting a second Bastion, the similarities will likely throw you for a loop, initially.
Transistor isn’t Bastion, of course. Surface similarities aside, Transistor is clearly its own game: a gorgeous story about alien happenstance, an amazing customization engine, a long linear corridor filled with several species of Bad Guy, a place of expected and unexpected humming. It’s not perfect, or even necessarily great: its combat does drag on after a while, the linear nature of its exploration can grate, and ‘not knowing what in the devil is going on’ for too long can play hell on the enjoyment of people who like finding out that sort of stuff.
But Transistor is also a fun game about pitting your malleable combat arsenal against a very 00’s idea of what a hostile computer uprising would look like. It’s challenging, yet forgiving, beautiful, yet more than eye-candy, combat-heavy, yet rich in lore. It’s a little difficult to pin down, for those of you wanting an exact recommendation, but I think you could do worse than give it a try sometime.
Transistor is currently around twenty bucks on Steam. It’s pricey, as far as our contemporary ideas on indie game pricing go. It’s also cheap, if you look at how much care and detail have obviously gone into it. I didn’t regret the purchase one moment; make of that closing line what you will.