Transistor starts off strong with its phenomenal soundtrack, striking visuals, lively animation, and intriguing premise. Yeah, these are the guys who did Bastion, all right. You find a second power and you assign it to a button. You find a third power and you use to modify your first power. You figure out the turn-based action queue. You’re off and running. Ashley Barrett starts singing. The city glows with color and eerie light. This is going to be good, right?
After the jump, the rest of the game happens.
But Transistor’s promising start crumbles quickly, especially if you go into it thinking “yeah, these are the guys who did Bastion, all right”. The story is convoluted and brimming with extraneous detail, doled out at optional terminals and on unlockable screens you might never see. Names you’ve never heard waft into the game and suddenly one of them is important and you have no idea why. The setting changes and…oh, wait, it stays the same. You can press buttons to hum and swing your blade for no reason at all. Here is a singer without a voice, a blade with a soul and then another soul and then another soul, and a game with an indeterminate objective. Who’s done what to whom and why and where is she going? Here is a series of battles interspersed by the sorts of exposition you might expect in a fifty-hour JRPG. What happened to the simplicity of Bastion? Bastion was the story of a fable. Transistor is the story of a JRPG.
Transistor revels in its extraneous text and detail, and it all sounds like noise after a while. Every exit is helpfully labeled to tell you to come closer, but beneath that is a pointless statistic, like a loose thread on a shirt. Is there any reason to read the terminals and wait for their text to unfurl? There was a charming avuncular quality to Logan Cunningham’s voiceover in Bastion; but here he’s doing something more like a noir voiceover, talking not to me, the player, but to someone who can’t talk back, confiding in someone else the details of their own story which I wasn’t present for. In Bastion, I was The Kid. In Transistor, I’m an onlooker.
Eventually you come to voiceovers that freeze the game until they’re done talking. But Bastion never stopped and made me listen, at least until it had something really important to tell me. Its dense and muscular prose teased out information about that world’s mythology, all delivered alongside the gameplay and never instead of the gameplay. But Transistor delivers so much static, spackling an overbearing narrative into wide gaps between the gameplay.
There’s no sense of exploration or discovery. If there was a revelation, it was lost on me. There is only a glowing cyber-city, laid out end to end, dropping you back where you began with a few cutscenes along the way. At one point, you encounter a single puzzle that’s not even really a puzzle. There’s a terrible boss battle for a finale, unlike anything you’d done previously. Then there’s an ending that I didn’t understand and therefore didn’t care about, despite the music caring deeply. But, lordy, what music and what a joy it is to hear Ashley Barrett singing. If Transistor was just a soundtrack, it would be sublime.
The biggest problem with Transistor is that it’s a terribly confused game. Its own variety literally falls apart. You can use every power you find in one of three ways: as an attack, as a modifier to another attack, or as a passive ability. This is an intriguing system and the variety of configurations is staggering. If you look behind the walls of exposition, you can even admire all the possibility, laid out as an exhaustive screen of every possible combination for each power. You’ll thrill to all the mix and match, getting your character build just right.
Then you’ll discover that the penalty for getting hurt is having one or your powers knocked out of commission until you’ve passed two more checkpoints. Now the combat has fallen apart. Now you have to rejigger your character. Now you have to play with fewer skills, or with skills you didn’t want to use. Now you have to flounder through the atrocious interface for setting up your skills. It’s bad enough that as you’re playing, there’s no way to call up the details of your current loadout. You can only reconfigure your character at checkpoints, which is fair enough. But why is that the only place you can get information on what your skills do? Why can’t I check my skills while I’m playing? Why does Transistor spend so much time with the stats locked up, especially since it’s going to force me to use the ones I don’t want to use?
Furthermore, there’s not much information about what the monsters are doing, or how they’re doing it, or what you’re supposed to do in response. Some monsters cloak, some fire homing projectiles, some heal themselves. I just spammed attacks as best as I could, never the wiser about how to compromise cloaking, what determined how fast a homing attack would hit me, or how to prevent monsters from healing themselves. I don’t doubt there’s a relatively rich tactical interplay at work. But I had no easy way and no incentive to figure it out.
You can try the different powers in a test arena, but Transistor does a terrible job of parcelling out its content. You never know when you’ll find a secret door back to your dimensional pocket. Bastion had an evolving hub; Transistor has a sometimes retreat. When will you be there next? Who knows? What cool features will it unlock? I hate to spoil this for you, but none. You mostly unlock doors to combat challenges. These presumably teach you about the game’s systems by forcing you to stay alive for a while (I did this by running in a circle around the edge of the level), or to defeat monsters in a limited number of moves (Why can’t I get information about what powers I’m using?), or to just pit specific monsters against a specific set of powers (Again, why can’t I get information about the powers I’m using?).
Although Transistor seems at first like an action game, it expects you to freeze the world and queue up orders, which execute in superspeed when you unpause. This kills the pacing for how you then have to wait for your pause ability to cooldown. Pause, give orders, wait. Pause, give orders, wait. Pause, give orders, wait. What kind of action game is based on waiting? At least the idea behind cooldown timers in an MMO is that you’re using other skills. In Transistor, the cooldown time is always about waiting, usually behind the convenient cover that grows in every fenced in combat area. It’s necessary to jerk the pace around like this if you want to raise the challenge level by installing some of the optional difficulty mods. But I eventually uninstalled all the difficulty mods and just spammed my way to the end with a single power. Even then, I still had to do my share of pause, give orders, wait, repeat as necessary.
You can equip limiters that boost the difficulty level and give you more experience points. This means you’ll level faster, unlocking powers and upgrades. But without a more meaningful expression of the combat system, without revealing to me the interaction among monsters and attacks, that’s not much of an incentive. I ended Transistor with more attacks and options than I cared to use. And then, very early in the new game plus mode, it started giving me copies of powers I already had. It’s as if I’d hit the end of the combat system, and I hadn’t even finished the combat challenges. Is this all it has to show me? I recall Bastion feeling far more open ended, offering me a scoring challenge and plenty of incentive to boost the difficulty level. But Transistor commits the cardinal sin of not making me want to keep going. It feels as if it’s ended before it’s over. The new game plus should be the opportunity to flex everything I’ve unlocked and yet here I am using the same tools, with no reason to raise the difficulty because I’m pretty sure I’ve seen all it has to offer. At least it made me appreciate what a powerful and frail construct Bastion was, with its modest pieces supporting each other, complementing each other, with a sense of focus and simplicity and variety.
When I reviewed Bastion, I wrote the review as a list of 15 things all games can learn. For me, the real disappointment of Transistor is that developer Supergiant seems to have forgotten half those things.