Don’t Let Me Go
Transistor is, ostensibly, a love story.
There will be light spoilers in this review, by the way.
It’s about two people in love with each other and with their home. There’s this other stuff that’s surrounding the story. Like, for example, it takes place in a cyberpunk victorian world that doesn’t take itself too serious. The people in this world order sandwiches. Not ‘Meat Injections’ or ‘Sustenance Pills’, just sandwiches. Most cyberpunk can tend toward an exclusionary style of prose that relies on very specific cliches because they strive so very hard to ape the original Gibson style. Transistor avoids most of these tropes by doing what any good story does. It focuses more on the characters than the setting.
The city of Cloudbank is at the center of the world and is a fully realized setting, make no mistake. There are references to eateries, local politics, and even long-standing traditions. For two main characters though, it’s the place where they live. They aren’t aware of you, the visitor, watching over them as they struggle to save and restore it. This leads to a very detached storytelling that requires the player to focus if they want to piece together the various threads given to you. Not because it’s language is dense or it contains made up words and technobabble but because it’s so utterly indifferent to your presence. As you enter new areas the Transistor will lament the loss of some snazzy jazz bar or talk about the view from this specific landing, but he will never rely on straight exposition to catch you up on what you’ve missed.
Or… you know, don’t piece it together. The interactions between Red (your player character) and “The Transistor” (her sword) are more than enough to keep anyone engaged. The game drops you right into the action too, there’s no opening cutscene or tutorial level, just Red and her sword and the Process who are your enemy. As you progress through Cloudbank you’ll figure out your role in the events and who the real enemy is, but this is all presented to you through dialog between a sword and a mute. Though later there is a character who has a bit of a big mouth…
As much as I loved it’s lackadaisical approach; the story isn’t the thing that blew me away with this game. Combat in Transistor is sublime and ruined only by a low difficulty in the last hour of the game. You have abilities, called functions, that you can slot into one of four ability nodes. These nodes in turn have two augment slots that affect only their specific node. Lastly there are four passive ability slots that affect all the main 4 abilities in different ways.
Any one of the 16 functions you get throughout the game can be put into any of these 16 different slots to create a wide variety of combat effect and mechanics. For example:
You get an ability fairly early on called “Jaunt()”. If you put Jaunt into one of the four main ability slots you will be able to teleport in combat. If, however, you decide to augment an ability with Jaunt then you will be able to use it even when your Turn meter is depleted OR you can put it in one of the four passive ability slots to recover your Turn meter more quickly. What is “Turn” you may be asking? Turn is the other half of the combat. Whereas all the abilities can be used real-time, combat quickly gets dangerous enough that you will have to pause and program your moves. You do this with “Turn”. By pressing the right trigger the action stops and goes turn based. You can program a set number of combat actions based on your Turn Meter which depletes for every step you take and ever attack you make.
These intricacies might at first be overwhelming but you should be able to wrap your head around them fairly quickly and come to realize it’s actually the best combat system in an RPG ever. Possibly. More than likely.
Transistor took me quite by surprise. I didn’t expect the story and combat to be so wonderfully implemented. It is, so far, the best game I’ve played all year and I highly recommend a playthrough and then another playthrough.