A rather personal review of Transistor, a video game by Supergiant Games
I remember what it was like to play video games when I was a child. First there was the sense of controlling the character, of moving those pixels on the screen with just the pressings of buttons. And then there was the button for jumping, for running. And when entering a new area, a whole different world of colours opened up. There was the menus, too, and the buttons. And I remember, myself, when I was experienced enough with games to not be daunted by unknown buttons, I started learning what each of them do.
I don’t remember my first video games, though. But I do remember most of my childhood games are mostly action platformers like Zelda (but not Zelda) or turn-based RPG like Pokémon. The are a lot of simulation and resource-management games up too. SimCity and tycoon games and, ah, Age of Empires with my father. I also remember fighting games, when I can still go to my cousins’ every weekend, and so much hours on Guitar Hero.
It was the sense of discovery, anyway, that I’m trying to say. That process of learning the system, the feeling of wonder as the world inside the game opened up. But it’s not a feeling that can be made twice. Once you start getting it, you get it. And as you get older and understand more things, well, the world doesn’t feel very large any more. I play a lot of different games, and I noticed, as I become more familiar with the common genres and methods, as I grow out of being a child, that sense of wonder gradually disappeared.
But in playing Transistor, I feel something very similar to what I felt as a child. From the moment you started the game, in which you are immediately thrown into the opening scene with no main menu whatsover, Transistor refused to be understood with conventional eyes. On a whole, its system is known: Isometric action RPG where you move a character around and have to bang out attacks to beat up your enemies. But the way it turns its own system around is marvellous.
While Transistor is made with an action real-time system, its battles can also be carried out in turns. Press Space, and suddenly the whole world pauses. Here you can plan out your attacks for maximum effectiveness. Move here, attack with this, combo with this, move there. Press Space again, and see your plans in action. For a few seconds afterwards, you are vulnerable and unable to use your attacks.
Its underlying system is real-time, yes, but while most real-time games ushers you to simply bashing the attack buttons, Transistor encourages you to think tactically. Encourages. You are never told or forced to do as the developers intended. Make use of the Turn system, or make your own decision to just ignore it and just bang out your moves as you might usually do.
There is a great deal of freedom in how to play the game, in Transistor. Apart from the turn-based versus real-time, you can also choose and customize which attacks is usable in battles. Only four active attacks are allowed at once, but all the rest can be added as any upgrade to any of the four or as a passive skill. Each of the many attacks have different effects and gives different bonus when used differently, paving way to dozens of ways to customize the gameplay. Be a hard-hitter, or just cripple your enemies from afar. Combo this attack with that, and that’s probably better than just using that attack over and over again.
What I like about Transistor is how it encourages you to think, to mull over your tactics for a bit. And then there was that sudden discovery of a killer combo, for example, or that moment when you just realized how effectively can the attacks be used. In some ways it mirrors my old childhood discovery of how Fire-type moves beat Grass-type enemies any time of the day. And the thoughts lingers. Five minutes after you are done with the game for the day, you thought, hey this combo would really really good
I guess in some way, the game is rather easy to beat, and you’ll find it short and quick to its ending. But to just be able to try out different tactics and experiment with moves is enough. Additionally, you can also uses what is called Limiters, which increase the enemy’s strength and durability in unique ways. More customization then, more choice on how to play.
The game will, however, be a complete and utter bore to someone who is not willing to experiment, or one who just rages through the game wanting to beat it without thinking, those who plays the game looking for mindless entertainment, or those who are unable to see its subtle encouragements. Transistor is, all in all, a pretty subtle game.
And this to say nothing yet of its story, which is subtle. Very subtle.
I’ll say, I’ve never quite read or watched or played through a story like Transistor’s. Its plot is fine, of course. Just fine. But the way in which it is told, that’s something. I won’t say a word of what the story is about. You can get the (probably) basic gist of it from the trailer, and you can get its vibe just by looking at the promo arts, and saying anything more will spoil your experience of the game.
And, well, Transistor tells is story in many, many ways. There was the dialogue, of course, and the accompanying voice actors, and both of them are brilliant. And your view of the world, made by the platform on which your character stood and battles are done. But only looking at the things that are visible upfront will only tell you half the story.
The other half, it seems, are made in your own mind. The game never tells you outright about anything. Dialogues – mostly one-sided dialogues, but still – are spoken, but the dialogue is part of the world, and it never talks to the player as a player. The world is large and diverse and it expands as the player moves about, but no one it is ever told what it all meant. There are little hints and extra tidbits and easter eggs thrown about, rewarding players who go out of the way to explore, but what they all mean is up for interpretation.
In regards of the story, and of the world built in Transistor, everything is really quite up to the players to think and process themselves. In the beginning things will be confusing. People will talk about things that you don’t understand, throwing phrases about without you having any idea ow what they might mean. But gradually, if you are willing to explore and to think and pry through its subtle images, you can reach the conclusion on your own. The epitome of the story isn’t the ending, but that oh-my-god moment when the pieces started fitting together in your mind.
But in turn, then, the ending only gives you an end. Not a closure. A little spoiler: At the end of the game, about a dozen questions are answered, but a thousand more are left as is. As I see the credits scene rolling on, I can, indeed, accept that the game has ended. But I am not, damn well, finished with you yet, game.
As an extra, and a major extra, all the world of the game unfolds on a beautiful, perfectly stylish environment, coupled with polished detailed animation. Its art style is something to behold, and its GUI is effective and integrates well with the rest of the game. The music is beautiful, very beautiful, and matches well with every moment of the game. Frankly, Transistor is a game you play when you can lend all your ears and eyes and both your hands and all your mind and heart to. All its elements works very well supporting each other; taking anything out will detracts from the game’s enjoyment, and for a game this good I really didn’t want to detract anything.
It’s a short game, though. Rather short. Rather small. Something you beat in a week if you have an hour a day to spare. And it’s… got something very personal running through it. Very personal, very abstract. It can gets confusing, and when it does it’s best to just run with whatever it is you want to think of it. It wants to engage you, but it might be difficult for you to feel engaged, because of its abstract nature. You might not feel the story is close to you, you might not relate to any of its character. But the sense of wonder that this game emits, that can spawn a whole different attachment on its own.