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Review: Transistor is a sight to behold

By Rob Crossley on Tuesday 20th May 2014 at 4:00 PM UTC

Despite the pseudo-scientific warnings about maintaining a certain distance from the TV, one could argue that admiring Transistor at dangerously close proximity is a risk worth taking.

This bewitching action-RPG, developed by Bastion creators Supergiant Games, will compel players to shuffle their seats close in and be engulfed by its meticulously adorned world. The level of care that has gone into etching every last tiny detail, from design to lighting to animation, is staggering.

Transistor's depiction of Cloudbank, a sprawling fictional city that stretches into the sky, is perhaps the game's defining and unforgettable characteristic.

The city offers an exceptional, dream-like vision of how art co-exists with technology in the distant future. Think of a renaissance era set within the post-information age. Blues music echoes through futuristic alleyways and lovingly detailed concert posters blanket the streets. Yet, at the same time everything feels like it's under scrutiny - even though there are no obvious cameras. The number of times a ball has been bounced, the probability of someone lying, and even how much fun someone has on a springboard-like platform, is calculated and stored somewhere.

Perhaps most fascinating are signs of a world that has accepted and grown with mass-surveillance, and how it appears to have only amplified the value people place on performance, individuality and expression. The opening promenade level, for example, boasts dazzling architectural showpieces with lavish furnishings and deep red curtains that you can almost feel the weight of.

Cloudbank is an AI city with a soul; immense care has been taken to preserve its unique deco-punk charm, right though to the smaller details, such as the hazy fluorescent lighting, the old-fashioned internet terminals, the cobbled stone floors and the murals.

Then there's Red. If the game's glistening streets won't draw your eyes to the TV's warm glow, then its heroine certainly will. Red represents everything the city craves - charisma, grace, beauty - and it beggars belief how much non-essential work Supergiant Games undertaken just to expand her character.

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Press L1/LB, for example, and Red will begin to hum along to the music, with a heavenly pitch, to whatever is playing in the background. The sheer extent of work required for this - from planning to recording to programming to testing - is painful to even think about. Even moreso when you consider there is no definitive (or at least conventional) gameplay function for humming; it is only for the purpose of developing the character.

At the game's outset, it's established that Red's voice is taken from her after being attacked by an unknown group. Yet she is so infatuated by music that she will continue to hum even though she can't sing. As she does, the world stops, a spotlight glows around her, and rays of soft sunlight beam in. Her perseverance is, at least for softer hearts, quite inspirational.

Other games would usually employ a sentence or two for that kind of character detail. But Transistor wants to show rather than tell, however much more work that involves, because its developers believe in the value of expression as much as its fictional city does. The writing is sharp, the ideas - like how Red communicates by posting comments on websites, for example - press all the right buttons and its soundscape is wonderfully brooding. For most of the time it is beautiful without being twee, though you may fear worse outcomes at first.

Red's companion is The Transistor; a talking sword who inhabits the souls of people who have passed away. Certainly at the outset, The Transistor introduces itself with a hyper-serious voice that is irritating and instantly mockable. Yet, as a testament to the writing, the character grows along with the player, eventually proving his depth and wit.

"Transistor wants to show rather than tell... its developers believe in the value of expression as much as its fictional city does"

Which is fortunate, considering The Transistor incessantly talks throughout the game with that porn-voice of his. Though he doesn't possess the all-knowing insight of a traditional narrator, everything encountered will be commented on. That may sound a little grating, so it's commendable that Supergiant Games has just about pulled it off. Again it comes down to the quality of writing - the right things are said at just the right time. At its peak, the script will show it knows what you're thinking.

Transistor is a triumph of visual majesty and perfectly executed presentation that has something to teach even the most accomplished games developers in the world today. Unfortunately, its gameplay design isn't as unequivocally successful.

There are two approaches to combat. The first is the conventional real-time action game mechanic, with four attack manoeuvres activated by the four face buttons of the PS4/Xbox One pad (or your PC controller equivalent). The second approach is planning mode, which freezes time and gives the player a limited number of moves, with each ability and movement using up a chunk of a finite energy bar. When the execute button is pressed, Red will action all the commands.

The latter renders the former fairly useless, however. There is no meaningful desire to fight battles in real-time when it's far less hassle to freeze enemies and line up four or five attacks.

There is a cool-down period after each turn is taken, which lasts no more than a couple of seconds, meaning that players cannot completely spam planning mode. Yet, since the best strategy is usually to avoid enemies by running and taking refuge behind cover while the bar recovers, the undesired outcome is that players won't meaningfully engage in battle until their planning charge is refilled.

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Although at times this can turn into an interesting game of cat-and-mouse, and while planning mode offers some strategic options, there isn't enough potential here to carry an entire game. There isn't enough thinking besides evaluating the most efficient manner for toppling your AI foes, again and again. There are not enough dilemmas, not enough instances of the game out-foxing the player, not enough moments of desperation. Combat is, too often, processing enemies.

Turn-based strategy is about empowerment through choice, and while certain moments of strategy stand out, that's partly because there's not enough throughout the game. The fantastic depth in selecting and modifying your four weapons would be a masterstroke were it not rendered somewhat redundant by choosing the three best attacks and repeating them until the game is completed.

Transistor is nevertheless a sight to behold; a sumptuous, lovingly crafted visual and audio delight. One could argue that its flaws, such as the lack of clearly indicated pathways, are indicative of Supergiant Games' preoccupation with presentation over design. Yet such mistakes are not exactly deal-breakers, and you won't regret buying this by virtue of its immense beauty. But once you put the pad down and walk away from Transistor's alluring world, there are not enough gameplay hooks to compel you back.

The verdict

Bewitchingly beautiful with sharp writing and charming character, but its underpinning gameplay doesn't take the same steps forwards

  • Exceptional visual craftsmanship
  • Painstakingly detailed
  • Uniquely charming
  • Not enough versatility in challenge
  • Battles become somewhat drear
7
Format
Xbox 360
Developer
Unknown
Publisher
Unknown
Genre
Action, Adventure

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