words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Supergiant Games for PC and PS4, originally released in 2014.
Transistor tells the tale of Red, a singer who has lost her voice. Things begin in medias res with Red on rooftop, standing near a man with a large sword sticking out of his torso. The sword speaks, glowing as it does so, and says: “Red… We’re not going to get away with this, are we?” The player then takes control of Red as she dislodges the object from the body of her companion, and finds that his consciousness has been transferred to the sword-like object, known as the Transistor.

The game takes place in what appears to be a virtual world, although this is not overtly stated. This setting is enforced by the fact that bits of “reality” are being altered by mechanized creatures that roam the environment, and the language of the game consists largely of programmer-speak, with battles being called “processes”, areas carrying names like Empty Set and Floating Point, and your various attacks being called “functions” with names like Ping() and Crash().

In the city of Cloudbank, a number of citizens – and even entire buildings – have begun disappearing without explanation, and these disappearances are being downplayed by the government-controlled news agency. Various computer terminals paint a dystopian view of the world, offering only censored media and propaganda. The freedoms granted to the people take the form of meaningless surveys and participation in government-moderated comments in response to news stories.

A group known as the Camerata seems to be at the root of the city’s troubles, and things are being unmade by something called The Process, which Red and her companion set out to investigate. Red examines computer terminals and engages in a one-sided dialogue as the voice from the sword elaborates on the objects and events surrounding them.

An opening area gives the player the opportunity to experiment with the controls, although the tutorial is quite light in comparison to the overall complexity of the battle system. One of the first lessons the player learns is that the game may be played as an action RPG, a strategy RPG, or a mixture of both.

Every attack at the player’s disposal has a cooldown period. However, the player may stop time at will and string together a series of attacks, unpausing to watch them play out at high speed, with the enemies’ movement slowed to a near-standstill. After unleashing these planned attacks, Red has an extended cooldown period that lasts for several seconds, during which time most of her abilities cannot be used, forcing the player to avoid contact with enemies until the meter refills.

Red starts out with two basic attack types. One is a slow but powerful long range attack, and the other is a short range attack that allows the player to temporarily weaken an enemy so that later attacks in the combo will cause more damage. Pausing time to use the SRPG system allows players to plan their attacks and see how much damage is going to be done to each enemy. Since time is not completely stopped when the action is resumed, the player must take into consideration how multiple attacks will stack, and what will happen if one of the attacks knocks the enemy backward, potentially pushing it out of range of future attacks in the string.

Early on, you encounter two deceased citizens, each of whom has a floating blue cube rotating above his or her body, which is known as a “trace”. Red’s companion is able to communicate with these cubes, although the player is only able to hear his side of the conversation. In each instance, the individual’s trace is absorbed into the Transistor and becomes a new ability. Future abilities are gained by levelling up.

Absorbing these traces opens up two additional slots in Red’s repertoire and grants her the ability to unleash a fast medium range attack as well as a quick dash maneuver, rounding out her moveset to supplement her slower attacks. From here, things get complex quickly, and it is up to the player to experiment with the combat system to fully understand it.

All of Red’s abilities are called “functions”, and most of these can be used to attack enemies directly. Functions may be assigned to one of four primary ability slots, each of which is activated by pressing the corresponding attack button. However, any function may also be added as a modifier to any other function, or assigned as a general passive ability.

For example, the player has a Bounce() function that can be used to fire an energy bolt at an enemy, hitting it and then ricocheting to the next closest enemy, and continuing to jump from one to the next as long as enemies are in close proximity. However, this function may also be installed as an upgrade to another ability, such as the player’s powerful long-range attack, Breach(). Adding it as a modifier allows the player to fire long range blasts that hit distant targets and then bounce to other targets. Bounce() may also be assigned to a passive slot that grants the player a shield that deflects attacks.

This is one very basic example, but the possibilities are nearly limitless, particularly when you take into account that there are 16 total functions that may be acquired throughout the game, each of which can be used as a primary attack, an attack modifier, or a passive modifier. Most functions are merely offer different types of attack abilities, with your typical gamut of stronger, faster, and longer range attacks, as well as explosive area effects and time-based corrosive effects. However, some functions offer significant changes to basic combat tactics.

For instance, one of the early abilities you gain is a dash maneuver called Jaunt(). This is useful in a number of ways, allowing you to dash away from enemies, or quickly dash from one foe to the next in order to line up a series of devastating up-close attacks. The thing that makes this ability stand out from the others is that you can use it during the extended cooldown period that follows an SRPG sequence. So, while all of your other abilities are locked away, you can keep dashing away from harm. However, Jaunt() can also be used as a modifier to an offensive function, granting you the ability to toss projectiles and otherwise harm enemies even while recovering.

Another vastly different ability is Switch(), which allows you to temporarily change the alignment of an enemy, forcing it to fight on your side. This function is particularly useful when used as a modifier, allowing you to zap a couple of tough foes to do your dirty work for you while you take down some of the other baddies nearby. You an even tie this function to Jaunt() so that enemies are turned just by dashing past them, making it doubly useful as an escape technique.

Experimentation is the key to understanding how functions operate and what works best to suit your play style. A minor hindrance to this experimentation is a somewhat obtuse menu system that only allows players to uninstall functions from the top level function menu, rather than doing so on the screen where functions are assigned. Since the top level function menu doesn’t show which functions are assigned to which slots, you may find yourself accidentally uninstalling the incorrect upgrade. During gameplay, functions may only be swapped out at Access Points – which appear with regular frequency – and these also act as save points.

When you enter an area with enemies, a line of bluish white lights encircles the area, preventing you from leaving until all of the enemies have been defeated. Many defeated enemies drop a pod when they are destroyed, and these pods have a countdown timer, usually lasting 10 seconds. If you don’t collect the pod before the timer runs down, the enemy will respawn, often appearing as an upgraded version of its former self. This plays heavily into the game’s combat strategy, as it is not possible to simply sit back and pick off enemies from a distance; rather, the player must dive in amongst the enemies at regular intervals.

Enemies come in a number of forms, most of which are represented by white robotic bodies with large red camera-like eyes. Some enemies can chuck explosives at you from afar, retreating when you get close. Others will pursue you around the environment. Some offer assistance to one another, such as the Cheerleader enemy that can cast a shield around any of the other enemies nearby, making it invincible until the Cheerleader is destroyed. Worm-like Weed enemies work in a similar way, casting a dome around them that heals any enemies that enter the area, while harming you if you do the same. On the flipside, either of these enemies can be turned by using the Switch() function, causing them to heal or shield you instead, at least temporarily.

Later encounters involve upgraded versions of former foes with greater combat abilities, as well as larger numbers of tough enemies, requiring players to use the knowledge of their skillsets and upgrades and put them to their best use. For instance, one enemy type is able to summon highly explosive support creatures that seek you out, while the enemy itself is able to phase in and out of existence, making itself temporarily invincible. As such, it’s best to have a fast-firing weapon on hand that you can use to dispose of the explosives – preferably aiming them back at their originators – while also having some heavy-duty abilities to take advantage of the enemy’s vulnerable period. The game features several boss fights as well, although these are not terribly more complex or difficult than the enemy encounters leading up to them.

There are very few opportunities for health restoration during battle; however, if your health bar drains completely, it’s not the end. Often, taking a hit when you are very low on health will cause the action to pause and allow you to take an “emergency” turn, giving you a chance to get in a few attacks and hopefully move away from danger. If you do manage to lose all of your health during battle, one of your four primary functions becomes overloaded, preventing you from using it, and your life bar is refilled. Each time your health bar is drained, you will lose another of your abilities, allowing you to survive a bit longer while making it ever more difficult to defeat your enemies and also increasing the tension.

If you manage to survive until the end of the battle, your health is fully restored. Functions, too, may be restored by finding Access Points, but you must find more than one… Reaching your first Access Point after battle will show any overloaded functions and indicate how many more Access Points you need to find until they are restored. In the meantime, you are free to uninstall the overloaded functions and replace them with anything else. As such, this design offers a temporary penalty for failure while also encouraging players to experiment with different types of functions and modifiers, thus supporting its core design.

If the player is truly put out and feels that he cannot get by without a given function, he is free to reload a previous save. However, functions are versatile and well balanced, which means the player almost always has something in his arsenal that will see him to victory, even if it means changing his play style for a few battles.

When a battle has ended, points are tallied up, measured along a percentage bar, and when the bar reaches 100%, Red levels up. The level up system involves selecting a new function from a limited set, and sometimes gaining access to a “limiter” (more on these in a bit), or increasing your capacity to wield functions.

Function upgrades come in three varieties. First off, you can upgrade your memory. Each function requires a certain amount of memory to equip, with more powerful functions requiring more space. Once you hit your memory limit, you can’t install any new abilities without first uninstalling something else. Secondly, you can unlock new upgrade slots to modify your primary functions. By default, every function can have one other function acting as a modifier, but a second slot can also be opened, allowing you to have two upgrades installed for each. Lastly, you can unlock one of four additional slots that allow you to assign functions as general-use passive modifiers.

Players looking for an added challenge may take advantage of limiters to make the game more difficult, while gaining additional experience points as a reward. The player is free to enable as many limiters as he likes, causing enemies to become stronger, reducing the player’s capacity for installing functions, and even causing new enemies to spawn when others are killed.

A New Game+ mode allows players to start the game again from the beginning with all of their previous functions and limiters intact, but with tougher enemies to fight. In fact, players who don’t actively use limiters during the main game are unlikely to have unlocked all of the functions and upgrades by the time they reach the end. The New Game+ allows players to further experiment with the deep combat system and earn all of the available functions, and then start unlocking duplicates of existing functions to allow for additional unique combinations.

Throughout the game, the player encounters a number of “back doors” that allow access to a hub outside the main gameplay area. Here, Red may sit in a hammock, listen to music, kick around a beach ball, or even play with a pet dog-creature named Luna. At the top of the area are five doorways, one of which acts as a practice area to experiment with the abilities you have earned to that point, and the others offer specific goal-based challenges.

Doors to challenge areas remain closed until you have made progress in the main game, and they close again once you have completed the allotted trials. These challenge areas task you with defeating enemies under a certain time limit, stringing together attacks in SRPG mode to defeat enemies in a single move, and surviving multiple waves of enemies with restrictions on your available functions. Here again, restricting access to elements of the player’s arsenal forces him to experiment with different combat solutions. A final set of challenges has you going up against a tough enemy who has many of your combat abilities, including the ability to stop time.

Completing challenges unlocks music tracks, and also rewards you with XP for enemies defeated during battle. Since doors close after the challenges have been completed, it is not possible to use this area to grind for experience. In fact, the game as a whole is mostly linear, with previously visited areas becoming closed off as you pass through. In the rare instances where you are offered a choice between two paths, you must eventually travel down each and return to the main route in order to continue.

This allows for a linear narrative, told mostly by the voice of the sword. However, even though Red is mute, she does offer some contributions to the story by typing comments into computer terminals. Often, she types out the message that she wants to post – usually criticizing the government – before erasing it to post something “safe”. In a couple of occasions, she types messages directed at her companion, who then responds to her verbally.

The voice of the sword is played by Logan Cunningham, who also provided the voice of the narrator in Supergiant Games’ previous release, Bastion, which was more focused on direct delivery of the narrative. In contrast, much of the story and history of the world of Transistor comes in the form of character backgrounds that are slowly unlocked as you use your various functions (each of which exists as a “trace” of a former Cloudbank citizen). In addition, a standout vocal performance is given by Sunkrish Bala, playing the part of Royce, a character introduced late in the game who appears wholly exhausted – and perhaps a bit psychologically undone – by the events that have led his life to this point.

A number of talented folks from the Bastion team make their return, including artist Jen Zee who delivers her painterly style to a new isometric world, populated with a mixture of old and new architecture styles, mixing eastern and western designs with a futuristic neon aesthetic that is further enhanced through lighting effects. Story and narrative were crafted by Greg Kasavin, telling a more subtle tale with a voiced narrative supplemented by additional story elements gained through character backgrounds, interactions with computer terminals, and humorous bits of extraneous detail tied to nearly every interactable object. Music once again plays a large part in the strength of the overall experience and atmosphere, with compositions and sound design provided by Darren Korb and vocals by Ashley Barret.

Transistor was developed by Supergiant Games, a 10-person studio based in San Francisco, California and founded in 2009.

Supergiant Games’ first game was Bastion, a critically and financially successful title that allowed the developers to move their studio out of the founder’s house in San Jose and into a proper commercial location in San Francisco, while continuing to work as an independent studio.

Bastion takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where a survivor, simply known as "the Kid", is working to build a safe haven for those who remain. In order to do so, the Kid travels to a number of floating islands to battle monsters and gather resources. As he travels, the world builds itself beneath his feet, giving the player an indication of which areas remain to be explored while allowing the developers to showcase the artwork of the backgrounds and isometric environments of this colorful organic world.

The entirety of the game is narrated, with each of the Kid's actions and surrounding encounters detailed by a gruff-voiced narrator who recounts the tale as though it were a grand story from long ago. Some of Transistor's origins may be seen here as well, including an extensive arsenal of weapons and the ability to increase the difficulty of the game to yield greater rewards for success in combat. For more details, be sure to check out our full feature here.