Supergiant Games made its name when it released Bastion in 2011, producing an unforgettable RPG with a strong art direction and compelling story that would go on to become an indie classic in later years. It was a tall order, then, for the studio to follow that act with something that could raise the quality bar again; it’s tough capturing lightning in a bottle once, let alone twice. Amazingly, the company managed to do just that with Transistor, an ARPG in a similar vein to Bastion that not only met the standards of its predecessor but surpassed them in some ways.
Transistor takes place in the far-future cyberpunk city of Cloudbank, a towering high-tech urban landscape where everything from the architecture to the weather is decided by the people on a day-to-day basis. The plot follows the story of Red, a kind-hearted jazz singer who’s lost her voice in the wake of a terrible tragedy which also saw her nameless lover’s soul absorbed into the eponymous Transistor sword. Left with nothing more to lose, Red then sets out on a quest for revenge against the mysterious organization responsible, as well as the strange force of robotic creatures — called ‘The Process’ — that they command.
Right from the get-go, Transistor does an utterly fantastic job of setting a sombre and mysterious atmosphere, and it does this largely through its unconventional approach to storytelling. Much like how Bastion had a narrator describing events as you progressed through the adventure, Transistor tells its story almost entirely through the voice of Red’s lover, which emanates from the sword she wields. As Red cuts through Process bots and explores the neon-lit streets of Cloudbank, the sword talks at regular intervals, commenting on enemies and locations and offering up plenty of background information that gradually unravels the ongoing mystery behind the events taking place. The narrator’s confident, sultry tones are a great fit for the dark atmosphere and help ascribe a satisfying level of emotion to events.
Transistor does a great job in the broad narrative strokes, but it becomes something truly special in the little moments along the way that establish the relationship between Red, her lover, and the world they lived in together. For example, the two have a favourite restaurant known as Junction Jan’s, and when you pass by the now lifeless and deserted location, the sword wistfully remarks how he doesn’t even recognize it without the foot traffic. It’s this regular and largely inconclusive flavour text that drives the narrative forward, making you care about Red and the Transistor in sometimes surprising and powerful ways.
Transistor is a relatively linear experience, oriented around the arena-style brawls that take place every couple of minutes with another band of Process. Battles are handled primarily in a live-action setting; you can equip up to four abilities or attacks at a time and these are all governed by a cooldown system that prevents you from using the more powerful moves too often. However, for those of you that would prefer to maximize your combat efficiency, the action in a battle can be paused at any moment in “Turn() mode” in which actions can be planned out. This mode gives you time to breathe and highlights things like explosion ranges and trajectory lines to ensure that you can make every action count. Everything you do — from running to using abilities — takes up a portion of an action gauge at the top of the screen, which limits the number and type of actions you can perform at once. When you’re ready to go, the set of selected actions is executed in rapid-fire succession, but Red then can’t act for a few seconds while the gauge recharges.
This all makes for a wonderfully dynamic battle system that caters to players of all skill levels while allowing for a suitably satisfying level of risk and reward. Taking the time to plan out moves can certainly lead to enhanced combat proficiency and, given the diverse and challenging new types of Process introduced as you progress, this is often critical to one’s success, but that window of vulnerability after executing the moves can spell a quick end. Similarly, it’s faster and easier in some cases to just charge in 'live' and use each of your moves one at a time, but then you have to worry about dodging attacks and ensuring that your own attacks don’t miss. Either way is a perfectly suitable means of playing through Transistor and the system does a great job of rewarding experimentation.
A big part of this experimentation is found in the abilities that Red can use in battle, called ‘Functions’. Every time you level up (or after certain story beats), Red is given access to new abilities that are noticeably multifaceted in their combat usefulness. Each ability essentially has three functions: Active, Upgrade, and Passive, and these are all based around a core ‘concept’, like ‘stealth’ or ‘speed’. For example, the ability 'Jaunt()' grants Red a quick dash move when used in an Active slot, speeds up the projectile speed of attacks when used in an Upgrade slot, and shortens recovery time if used in a Passive slot.
What’s nice about this system is how well it encourages players to experiment and branch out with new Functions as you receive them. The straightforward and simple approach of every ability being usable in every kind of ability slot just begs you to see what happens when you pair this ability with that one, and it also neatly manages to keep all Functions — even the early game ones — relevant regardless of how far you’ve progressed. Plus, there’s some clever worldbuilding taking place here, due to how every Function is actually a human soul trapped inside the Transistor. Each Function has a bio for the person that expands your understanding of the world through the lens of their interaction with it, but these bios have to be unlocked in chunks by using that Function in each of the three different roles.
For those of you that would prefer to take the harder route, there’s a feature similar to Functions which is unlocked partway through the campaign called ‘Limiters’ that’s sure to challenge even the most skilled player. Limiters are handicaps that help out the Process, such as making them hit harder or spawning them in greater numbers, in exchange for the player receiving an experience percentage buff upon completion of a battle. Those that feel comfortable with a loadout or their own skills in combat can turn these on or off at will, essentially betting on their combat prowess in hopes of being rewarded with faster levels, which bring new Functions and more ‘Memory’ so that more powerful ones can be equipped simultaneously. This feature is welcome for how it allows an already dynamic experience to be even more scalable; those who find the game too easy can make it more difficult and be properly compensated for their efforts, while those who don’t feel the need to push the envelope can go through the whole game without worrying about it.
As mentioned before, Transistor is a primarily linear game, but this cycle of battling enemies and listening to the Transistor talk while you run to the next fight is noticeably turned on its head by the ‘Backdoor’ zone that’s unlocked partway through the campaign. The Backdoor is a digitized tropical environment located in a sort of pocket dimension that you can access through special doors, but the real draw here isn’t just the relaxing music and visuals. Here, you can participate in a series of challenge rooms that place unique constraints on Red in battle, in exchange for extra experience points. For example, Speed Tests give you a premade loadout and task you with running a gauntlet of enemies under the clock, while Planning Tests are more puzzle-based in how they give you a preset loadout and task you with destroying all Process in a single turn. Like Limiters, these tests act as an extra challenge for those who are willing to rise to it, while adding in some lovely replayability and some interesting twists on the base combat.
From an audiovisual perspective, Transistor absolutely dazzles, going for a straight cyberpunk aesthetic that does a fantastic job of communicating the dark atmosphere of the story. Red primarily travels through a series of desolate and neon-lit urban environments, and each frame looks like a work of art unto itself, with a wide colour palette and a strong, pseudo-realistic art style that excels at showing all sorts of small details whether it be on a TV or on the Switch screen. Similarly, the soundtrack is incredible, consisting of a somewhat strange mixture of techno, jazz, bossa nova, and the occasional voiced track from Red herself. Though there’s a song for every occasion, they all have a sort of sorrowful or dark undertone to them, such as the peaceful, yet haunting humming of Red’s voice when in Turn () Mode. We’d highly suggest you play this one with headphones, as the nuances of both the soundtrack and the Transistor’s voice are especially highlighted when playing in a slightly more intimate environment.
Supergiant Games outdid itself with Transistor, providing an engaging ARPG experience that managed to improve upon its predecessor in many ways while adding in distinct new elements that help to define its identity. It's another welcome addition to the Switch library, and is the epitome of a modern RPG classic, with its fusion of cyberpunk elements, unconventional storytelling, and dynamic gameplay make for a game that you won’t want to miss out on. We’d give Transistor a high recommendation to anybody looking for another great RPG for their Switch, or for someone who just wants to hear a good story.