Transistor is an isometric action-RPG that was released in May of 2014. You play as Red, a young singer who just lost her voice. She carries a strange sword-like device called the Transistor, which contains the consciousness of a mysterious unnamed man. Said man speaks to Red via the Transistor and guides her through the utopian (or dystopian?) city of Cloudbank, now on the brink of destruction.
While the game is ultimately rather short and linear, it shines thanks to its wonderful gameplay, namely its combat system. The basic idea is that you can either fight by using the moves, or “functions”, assigned to the four attack buttons (which can be customized to a great extent). Or you can stop time during a battle and plan in advance a series of moves that you will then use in quick succession. Because of this, battles always have a real-time and a strategic aspect that blend seamlessly.
As a side note, the world of Transistor has an interesting “computer language” theme. Functions have names such as “crash”, “ping” or “switch”, and many locations and aspects of Cloudbank follow a similar naming convention (the leaders of the city are even called “administrators”). Both visually and thematically, Cloudbank is strongly hinted as being some sort of computer simulation.
Simply put, based on the fun gameplay and unique visuals alone, I can easily recommend you play Transistor.
No, seriously. You should play it now. Then maybe you’ll be able to tell me what the hell is going on in the story.
It’s one of those science-fiction stories that try to answer the question of “how to deal with exposition” with “let the viewer/player figure everything out as they go”. Transistor keeps throwing words and ideas at you such as “Cloudbank”, “the Process”, “the Camerata”, or “the Spine”, without explaining any of them. The final battle has basically no justification other than “shut up, it’s a video game, it needs a final boss”. And while the plot does come together at the end (somewhat), I will admit that I quickly lost interest and kept playing only for the other aspects of the game (which are more than sufficient on their own, fortunately).
The main problem is probably that since Red is mute, the only voice you hear (other than the two antagonists) is from the man in the Transistor. While his voice acting is admittedly incredible, he simply cannot carry the entire plot on his own.
The game does have other characters. From a gameplay perspective, they serve a simple but clever purpose: you upload their consciousness into the Transistor, which unlocks new functions to add to your attack combos. From a story perspective, unfortunately, all the side characters are already dead when you find them. This means that all the information you get on them comes from paragraphs of text in the menu. This was a bad idea back in Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, and it is still a bad idea now.
Fortunately, as previously mentioned, the gameplay and visuals alone carry the game. But the sound design definitely has to be mentioned as well. The music itself pretty good, but the developers didn’t stop there.
Transistor is notable for being the only action-RPG I know that has a button (actually two, if you count the weird “flourish” move) with absolutely no gameplay purpose. There is a “hum” button, which does exactly that: pressing it will make Red hum to the background music. Not only is it nice to hear, is also very powerful thematically and narratively. Red cannot sing anymore now that she has lost her voice, and whether the humming is real or inside her head, it might be the only thing she can do to remember who she used to be. The point is, you never have any reason to use the “hum” button anywhere in the game. Nevertheless, you are always free to take your mind off the dire situation of Cloudbank, if only for a few seconds, by the simple act of humming. This little, seemingly pointless artistic choice says much more about Red’s character that most of what the story tries to say with actual words.
This also means that all the tracks have two versions: the regular version, and the hummed version (you cannot use the hum button during battles, but the humming happens automatically when you stop time). This is surprisingly effective, and on a subconscious level, almost makes me feel like every other video game soundtrack is missing something.
Transistor also has actual songs (like the humming, they are sung by Red’s voice actress, Ashley Barrett) though I won’t link to them in order to avoid spoilers.
In the end, Transistor is rather short and doesn’t have much replay value. But if you are a fan of indie games, or just good games in general, I cannot see any reason not to give it a try.
– Number 5