Transistor Review

Transistor both strives and stumbles in its ambition. It uses the isometric foundation of Bastion, but only as a means to innovate and explore the limits of narrative fragmentation and mechanical innovation. The story’s complexity hinders its emotional impact and immediacy, while the combat shines as a result of depth and variety. It establishes an odd sense of progression in which the game itself and the world it crafts compensates for an expressionless narrative. Despite this, Transistor transcends many of its flaws and forges an unforgettable experience. Think of it as a case of unexplainable videogame magic.

Protagonist Red essentially loses her identity in the opening moments of Transistor. Once a popular singer in the city of Cloudbank, she now finds herself without a voice, a lover, or an answer. She slowly pulls the sword – the eponymous Transistor – out of her male companion and begins her journey. But this is not a tale of isolation and loneliness. The Transistor contains the consciousness of her companion, so players are immediately greeted by the smooth tones of voice actor Logan Cunningham. Developer Supergiant Games does not rehash the distinctive narration of 2011’s Bastion. Instead, Cunningham establishes a one-sided dialogue with Red and in turn the player. Neither of us can answer him, but he instills a sense of comfort. Thus, the sword contains the entirety of Transistor‘s limited emotional weight.


It also acts as a means of compensation for a story that meanders in its own complexity. The initial confusion mirrors Red’s sudden bewilderment, but she learns the truth behind a dangerous group called the Camerata while I struggle to find plausible explanations. Who are the Camerata? What’s their motive? How did they control an army of robotic AI? The game does provide answers, but they’re often buried away in terminals or lengthy text bios. I think of it as a jigsaw puzzle in which players must piece together clues to see the full picture, but the actual process of constructing that puzzle proves tedious. Only at the end did the game itself give me answers, and even then it came from a seemingly cold and lifeless antagonist. It’s a sharp contrast from Bastion‘s more organic form of storytelling,

It’s hard to ignore Transistor‘s narrative faults from a critical standpoint, and yet I played through the game twice and got the platinum trophy. I couldn’t put the game down. I’m the kind of guy who values narrative and its ability to drive progression, but the highly detailed world and thoughtful combat system fueled my desire to keep playing. The former should come as no surprise to fans of Bastion, a game that also thrives in a beautifully constructed environment. Transistor‘s Cloudbank emits a vibrant glow that contrasts the city’s gradual decay, thus creating a place that players want to learn more about and save from its own demise. Unassuming terminals provide backstory and a touch of personality to the fully realized sci-fi setting, which compliments the game’s combat system.


Cloudbank’s emphasis on technology makes it the perfect playground for Transistor‘s many functions. Players activate the Turn() function with the click of a button, which allows them to plan a series of actions and then execute them in super-speed. It sounds easy, but Red remains vulnerable for a handful of seconds while Turn() recharges. The game sheds genre conventions and hovers somewhere in the middle of action and turn-based mechanics. In fact, it vaguely reminds me of games like Valkyria Chronicles and XCOM: Enemy Unknown, in that combat strikes a balance between direct control and more thoughtful planning. It also stresses the importance of care and discretion, because the enemy robot horde – The Process – packs quite a punch.

The early moments of Transistor provide a welcome challenge, though Red becomes a killing machine with more functions in the last hour or two. Fortunately, masochists like myself can increase the difficulty with the help of limiters, which serve the same purpose as idols in Bastion. One limiter may increase enemy spawn rates, while another complicates the process of collecting enemy cells. The trade-off comes in the form of increased experience, as each limiter adds a percentage bonus to battles. I had much more fun playing the game with limiters equipped, because it made my function setup that much more important.

There are a lot of possible function combinations – a lot. Every function in the game can be used as an active ability, an upgrade to another ability, or a passive ability. The possibilities aren’t literally endless, but it sure feels that way. Much of the fun comes from testing new combinations in order to find the perfect match. I became quite fond of functions like Spark() and Void(), but I have friends who barely touched those two. It allows the game to cater to various play styles and preferences, and also encourages experimentation, as each function comes with a character bio.

The only way to fill out character bios is to place functions in all three slots and use them in battle. This system highlights some of Transistor‘s narrative inconsistencies, in that critical info is hidden away, but I did end up using all 16 functions because of it. In addition, players lose functions when their health reaches zero, and the only way to retain them is to reach another save point. Once again it emphasizes experimentation, and mitigates the blow of death. I didn’t mind though, because losing one of my favorite functions was punishment enough. I also enjoyed the various challenge rooms included in the game, as they allowed me to explore the mechanics of the game even further.

Transistor‘s combat and vivid portrayal of Cloudbank make it one of the year’s best games. Despite my issues with its narrative, I couldn’t stop playing. It’s easy to point out positives and negatives, but sometimes a game just has that special “it” factor. Case in point: Transistor.


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Author: Anthony LaBella View all posts by
My first experience playing a video game blew me away. The fact that Super Metroid was that game certainly helped. So I like to think Samus put me on the path to video games. Well, I guess my parents buying the SNES had a little something to do with it. Ever since then my passion for video games has grown. When I found that I could put words together into a coherent sentence, videogame journalism was a natural interest. Now I spend a large majority of my time either playing video games or writing about them, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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