Transistor review: Functions and form

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Transistor review: Functions and form
Transistor makes a great first impression. Its combat dances between familiar isometric action and turn-based tactics without missing a beat. The story radiates mystery and political intrigue, blended with a touch of romance. And all of it takes place in a world that somehow manages to marry the dreary neon of Blade Runner with the bohemian allure of Toulouse-Lautrec.

For the most part, these impressions hold true, even if Transistor doesn't quite deliver on all of its promise.Transistor takes place in Cloudbank, a sprawling metropolis that exists entirely in a digital realm, its architecture, its weather patterns and even its citizens governed by programming. The concept is a little difficult to parse, but imagine a place where a few lines of code are all it takes to will a skyscraper into existence, or where you can vote on what color the sky will be today. You play as Red, a singer who has become entangled with the Camerata, a group that doesn't see Cloudbank as the idyllic city it's made out to be. Red has come into possession of the sword-like Transistor, an item crucial to the Camerata's plans of social upheaval and something that the group is desperate to retrieve. It just so happens that Red has a bone to pick with the Camerata, and so Transistor's tale of revenge begins.

Discovering the Transistor's true purpose is at the center of the game's mystery. In gameplay, however, it serves mainly as a weapon. The Transistor has the power to absorb the citizens of Cloudbank, repurposing them as "functions" that Red can use in combat. At first glance, you'd be forgiven for thinking Transistor was an isometric action game, similar to developer Supergiant's debut effort, Bastion. In real-time, Red can swing the Transistor at enemies – rogue programs known as "The Process" – but she's quickly overwhelmed. The Transistor has another handy trick though, allowing Red to stop time and consider her actions.

At the touch of a button, enemies freeze in their tracks and Red can plot out a series of moves and functions. Red can only queue up a limited number of functions, represented by a bar at the top of the screen. In general, the more powerful a function is, the higher its "planning cost." Thankfully, you can spend as much time as you like plotting your turn, and queuing up actions immediately displays what the expected damage will be. You can also undo and redo functions without penalty, meaning you're free to rearrange and alter your plan until your happy with it. Once you've locked in your choices, time resumes and Red zooms around the battlefield, performing each action in the blink of an eye.

After executing your turn, however, it takes several seconds to recharge, forcing you to deal with enemies in real time. Those few vulnerable moments are enough to make you plan turns carefully. Sure, you can maximize damage by sending Red straight toward an enemy and queuing up numerous attacks, but that will leave her out in the open when real time resumes. Often, the best strategy is to queue a few key attacks and then spend your remaining points on moving Red behind cover. In hairy situations, you might even spend your entire planning budget on running away to regroup.

Combat is generally captivating, though it becomes a little monotonous by Transistor's end, especially once you've acquired some more powerful functions. I found myself repeating the same tactics over and over. Get behind enemy, weaken its defenses, unleash hell, repeat. It's sometimes necessary to defeat supporting enemies first, but I rarely found a need to alter my basic approach later in the game (even on the final boss). Even so, destroying the enemy in one deft stroke still provides a thrill.

Transistor encourages you to mix and match functions by tying them to the story. Installing functions in different capacities reveals portions of each character's history (remember, each function is actually a person absorbed by the Transistor). Every function can serve as either a direct attack, an upgrade for another attack, or a passive boost for Red. In order to reveal a character's entire story, you'll have to equip and use a single function in the active, upgrade and passive slots. It's a novel incentive to try different functions, but it also means you'll have to abandon powerful combinations if you want to know the whole story. It's a neat idea, but arbitrarily equipping less effective functions isn't always fun.

A side-effect of this idea is that the most detailed parts of Transistor's story revolve around characters you never actually meet. They're just blocks of (admittedly interesting) text in the functions menu. In fact, a great deal of the story revealed in text is more engaging than the events that happen on-screen.

Like the combat, the story starts off strongly, intertwining threads about Red's past, the history of the Camerata and the true purpose of the Transistor, but it doesn't come together in a satisfying way. The few characters you actually meet face-to-face often feel wooden and detached from the high stakes put forth by the plot. The Transistor itself provides most of the game's dialogue – or rather, one of Red's friends trapped inside the Transistor. Red cares about him, and it's clear that you're meant to as well, but his character is so ill-defined that there's nothing to latch onto, and as a result many of Transistor's emotional anchors fail to resonate. I won't spoil things, but during one of the game's most emotional moments, I felt confusion more than anything else.

In the end, it's the unique digital world of Cloudbank and the refreshing combat that drive Transistor. The perfectly executed turn is consistently rewarding, while uncovering the dark side of Cloudbank and untangling the motives of the Camerata proves enticing enough to draw you along, even if the story doesn't strike all of its intended chords.

This review is based on a pre-release PSN download of the PS4 version of Transistor, provided by Supergiant Games.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.
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