Transistor doesn’t begin until you press a button or nudge the joystick. Because, like Bastion before it, Transistor wants to form a bond with you, the player. This connection ties into the game’s tone and developer Supergiant Games’ fascination with rhythm. You can feel main character Red’s pulse as she glides through a city square, darts through a combat encounter, and nervously swipes her hair in front of a vast cityscape. Supergiant, whether by the intimacy of its small team or simply the power of music, deftly orchestrates a medium to let you embody a virtual character. It’s disappointing then, that only in its strongest moments, Transistor feels uniquely whole.
The post-apocalyptic tale of Bastion, Supergiant’s first release, was less ambitious than Transistor’s story of a failing future population. Here, a society of technology-obsessed characters make mistakes that define a city, relevantly named Cloudbank. You read the autobiographies of the deceased through Red’s talking, titular sword, and uncover more by using their strengths as your abilities in battle. Bastion hid its complexity in new weapons and upgrades, Transistor obscures its story, adding frustrating difficulty to understanding what occurred. In the end, though, simplicity wins. Transistor is actually about the relationship between Red and her weapon. Still, there’s significant explanation left out, maybe to be discovered on a second adventure, where you keep all of your earnings to face stronger foes.
That’s if you want to return to Transistor’s sporadic, grid-set combat. Red stops time to plan her actions against the game’s roster of synthetic enemies. In this paused state, you can line up a combination of attacks to perform within one second. In real-time, the purity of strategic planning is ripped away. Red is frail and powerless without the sword’s ability, leaving these brief moments to what feels like chance. Transistor’s genre blending fogs your control over the momentum of each battles. And it’s even harder to find an effective set of four distinct powers with synergistic upgrades.
Transistor is striking outside of the rigid enemy ambushes. Cloudbank resembles concept art, the beautiful pieces of games that, in all other cases, are worn down into functional levels. In every moment, the dark city is specific and broad at once, almost in perfect tandem with the moody soundtrack and the moodier writing. When thinking back, though, the lack of exacting detail bleeds the important locations together. Cloudbank is a memory you can’t quite grasp.
Most of Transistor struggles to hold onto its best moments. Usually when the score rocks your head and its little city into a steady bob. The effort to create evocative texture in Transistor mirrors Bastion, but it’s not the same symbiotic interactive experience. It’s hard to criticize a healthy change like that when the rest of the games industry spends its time repeating itself.
But that’s what underlines the tragedy of Transistor. It doesn’t matter how much you play and push and prod. Transistor rarely responds. It’s numb, and there’s nothing you can press or nudge to change that.
Final score: 3 out of 5