Hades was the domino that began my journey through the world of Supergiant Games. It wasn’t a title I was particularly interested in initially, but enough folks around me were absolutely flipping their lids that I decided I wanted to give the game a try. It became one of my favorite games the year I played it, in stiff competition with Celeste for the best game I played that year. Earlier this year upon realizing that Supergiant’s Pyre was a game in one of the charity bundles I had supported on itch dot io, I decided to jump in and see what that game was about. Even though I was terrible at Pyre I still deeply enjoyed it, and that was the point where I decided that I may as well plan to play Bastion and Transistor at some point as well. Luckily those games go on sale pretty often, and I was recently able to acquire both of them as well as FTL: Faster Than Light for a whopping total of $10. With both games now in my library, I decided to start things off with Transistor, primarily because a good friend of mine had played it recently and I figured it would be fun to discuss the game with him.
As is often the case with Supergiant’s openings, Transistor wastes no time on exposition and instead throws you right into the middle of some dangerous business. You play as a woman named Red wielding a sword-like piece of technology called the Transistor. The Transistor seems to be occupied by the consciousness of someone Red once knew, and together they are planning to escape from an abandoned city which seems only to be occupied by dangerous machines called processes. At least, this is all how it appears on the surface. Transistor isn’t forthcoming with information and instead drip feeds it through conversations and lore journals as you make your way through the game – are the people here real people? Are you programs? Are the processes something like robots or are they more like computer viruses or AI? The exact nature of the world is something for you as the player to discover; what Transistor is actually interested in teaching you right off the bat is how to play the game.
While Transistor is available on a few different platforms, I’m playing on PC so I will describe the controls from that perspective. You can move around with the arrow keys, WASD, or just click on the spot where you want Red to move. The E button interacts with objects in the environment, and the number keys serve as hotkeys for your abilities, referred to in-game as functions. When you meet your first process you have to fight it in real-time by right-clicking enemies to attack with your selected function, something that initially had me thinking that Transistor might be an isometric action game in the style of Hades. That’s not the case though, as one of the most important tools in your arsenal in Transistor is a little function called Turn(). Turn is activated with the space bar and stops time. During Turn(), you set up a series of actions to take once time resumes by moving to different positions and making attacks. Each movement or action takes up a portion of your stamina bar; once you run out of juice, it’s time to hit the space bar again and watch Red execute her actions at high speed. After Turn() is spent, you have a few moments where you cannot take actions outside of movement, time you spend dodging attacks and getting into position for your next Turn().
This relatively simple premise is built on significantly by the number of functions available to you and the way they work. You start with only Crash() and Breach(), the former of which deals light damage quickly and makes the opponent vulnerable to your next hit while the latter deals heavy damage in a long straight line but has a slow buildup. The list of functions grows over time as you level up, and you as the player have control over which ones you bring along to some degree. My first choice for example was between the Bounce() and Mask() functions, the first of which fires a bouncing projectile that chains between targets while the second provided concealment which could then be used to deal extra damage like a sneak attack. I chose Bounce(), expanding the number of offensive options available to me at the cost of utility. There are also functions you’ll always pick up as part of the story progression, such as the essential Jaunt() function which moves you at blinding speed over a short range even when the Turn() is depleted and serves as your main form of defense.
At any given time you can have up to four functions equipped and ready to use, but you’ll have more than four at your disposal. So what do the other ones do? Functions have two slots they can be used in: the active slot or the upgrade slot. Active functions give you new actions to take, but upgrade functions make modifications to the active function that expand its usefulness. For example, using Breach() as the upgrade function for Jaunt() causes Jaunt to deal damage to enemies in the dash range, while adding Jaunt() as an upgrade function enables the active function to be used even when your Turn() is depleted. The number of combinations opened up by the ability to use some functions in their active state and others in their upgrade state is where a lot of Transistor’s build customization comes in. It challenges you to make choices about what abilities are most useful in their active form versus the bonuses they could add to another ability in upgrade form.
One mechanism in the game that encourages you to experiment with different combos is how the game’s lore bible works. Information about the world is attached to each of your functions, with each one representing a specific person in the setting. Crash() for example has data on Red, the protagonist, and by using it both for its active effect and its upgrade effect you get more and more information about Red. This encourages you to use every function you get in at least two configurations in order to unlock information on the setting and its characters. It’s a nice way to get someone like me to use Jaunt() for anything other than the dodging dash, although for most abilities there is a lot of joy to be found in trying them in different combinations in order to see which variation of a function fits best with your playstyle. The main limitation is that your character has a limited number of memory for functions – each one has a cost associated and once you hit your limit, you can no longer install functions as upgrades even if you still have upgrade slots remaining.
Combat is the meat of Transistor and has more going on that just Turn() and your various functions. Enemy processes come in a number of different types with some aggravating “functions” of their own (eeeyyyyy). Weeds, for example, heal adjacent processes, which is a frustrating challenge to have to work around when dealing with strong processes that need multiple Turns() to eliminate. Cheerleaders place a barrier around a nearby process that prevents you from damaging them until the cheerleader is eliminated. Some processes move unusually such as the Young Lady, which will shift to a different position after your first hit of a Turn() and make it so the other attacks probably miss. Most functions when defeated turn into a cell, which if not picked up will cause the function to respawn. So the order in which you defeat functions is significant and taking the time to clear the detritus before you get surrounded again is key as well. And similar to Supergiant’s other titles, there’s a mechanic for increasing the difficulty in exchange for more/better rewards – just before I wrapped up during my first session with the game I got the ability to make it so that cells have shields that have to be broken in order to collect them.
Structurally, Transistor is much more linear than Pyre or Hades in the sense that you’re not making a lot of decisions about where you are going (Pyre) or navigating a space based on what benefits you want to try to earn (Hades). You move through an area from point A to point B and simply experience the combat scenarios and story beats in order. I’m not personally bothered by this because I think what Transistor is doing in terms of the build customization is interesting enough for me to feel like I have some choice in what’s happening and can craft my own experience with the game. It helps that the environments are gorgeous in typical Supergiant style – the scenes where Red is on a motorcycle or speedboat silhouetted against a busy backdrop of the city are a joy to take in. Also in typical Supergiant fashion you have plenty of wistful, moody interjections from the man inside the Transistor, serving as a sort of narrator for the game and setting an excellent mood as you progress. That mood is further supported by Darren Korb’s work on the music and Ashley Barrett’s excellent vocal stylings.
So far I’m enjoying Transistor. I’m most impressed with the function system and the customization that it allows while also rewarding you with information about characters in the setting. All of that supported by the lovely art, music, and vocal stylings that I have come to recognize as mainstays of Supergiant’s work has made my first couple of hours with the game a pleasure to experience. There are a few mechanics I definitely have not unlocked yet, so I’ll be curious to see what those add to the game and I’ll be watching for the way the story unfolds to see if it becomes more than a mildly intriguing background detail. Overall though, I anticipate that this will be one more strong entry in Supergiant’s impressive library.