There’s a specific choreography to the courtship of young lovers, those who know they are right for each other but who are too scared to let themselves get hurt. It’s an act built of fleeting glances and light touch–of vague, carefully chosen words. To those participating in the dance, these soft nothings are bursting with meaning. But to those watching from the outside, it’s infuriating. Why tiptoe around something that’s clearly going to work out? Just drop the defenses and make a real connection already.
Transistor’s love story runs along these lines, with the two romantic leads required to stay at arm’s length—literally, as one of them is a giant sword. But the game dances with the player this way as well. It’s unsure of itself and advances slowly, hoping that players will somehow discern the underlying truths in its cryptic words. For those who are willing to seek out those deeper threads, Transistor can be a breathless experience the whole way through. For everyone else, most of the game will likely be spent wondering what Transistor is waiting for.
The story is mysterious from the outset. Red, a popular singer in the futuristic city of Cloudbank, is nearly assassinated when a giant, USB stick-like greatsword called the Transistor tears through the air toward her. It misses but impales a man. Red keeps her life but loses her voice, and the dead man’s data-soul is absorbed into the Transistor. Together they quest to stop the Camarata, the group who was responsible for the attack on Red and who is now unleashing a robotic plague called The Process on the city.
For most of the game, this setup is the bulk of the solid, relevant information that is provided. The natures of The Process and the Transistor remain unclear. The relationship between Red and the man in the sword, both in the present and past, is obscured well past the point where it feels like this information is necessary. Even basic information about Cloudbank is hard to come by. Although socio-political details about the city are dropped at a steady clip, I found myself spending the majority of the game wondering simple things like, “Are they living in a computer?”
Without this knowledge, it’s possible to miss the thrust of Transistor. The sweet dulcet nothings of the man in the sword, which are meant to portray love and a desire to protect, transform instead into a monotone wall of frustrating puzzle-speak—an ambiguity that undermines the game’s emotional heart. No context is needed, however, to enjoy the chilling soundtrack and painterly neon art. By the second playthrough, everything that is needed to understand the proceedings is in place, and the game can be enjoyed as it was intended—as a love story between a mute songstress and a giant amnesiac sword.
The game’s combat is also a beautiful system that blossoms late. Initially, the Transistor has just a few abilities. It can be swung in a weak short-ranged attack, or it can fire a powerful laser-like beam that hits all enemies in a line—a stronger strike that takes a dangerously long time to warm up. These moves can be used in real time, but it’s often more effective to go into “Turn()” mode. Here, time will stop, allowing attacks to be lined up and executed sequentially before an enemy can respond.
As the story progresses, your abilities become more numerous and more versatile. Each of your talents can be used as its own attack, as a modifier for other attacks, or as a passive ability that helps you out in battle from behind the scenes. Collecting a few skills opens up an immense well of strategy that is plumbed in short, frantic battles. Which abilities do you bring into each fight, and how do you use them? When is it best to use them in Turn() mode or real time? Reaching the point where you confront these questions, however, requires that you accrue a lot of abilities, which only happens late in the game. Until then, you’re just using what little is available in a handful of obvious ways. Transistor, what are you waiting for?
It’s frustrating, then, the position Transistor has put itself in. This is an elegantly designed combat game that tells a subtle love story in an exotic space and time, yet it doesn’t reveal most of that stuff until it’s almost over. Some of its early moments can induce goosebumps, but even putting those aside, in the worst case it’s a game that takes a few hours before it becomes worthwhile. So yes, Transistor is slow and annoyingly coy. You shouldn’t have to play it twice to perceive all of its lovable quirks. Playing it twice, though, is still preferable to not playing it at all.
Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Supergiant Games
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4
Reviewed on: PC