This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Transistor.
What is a transistor? A semiconductor device commonly used as an amplifier? A song by Kraftwerk from their 1975 album Radio-Activity? The seventh album by Norwegian hard rock band TNT? What you're supposed to call your brother when he's halfway through a sex-change operation? It is all of these things and also the latest game by Supergiant Games, previously responsible for Bastion, an artsy isometric hack-and-slash game I quite liked for its nice story and single narrative voice that was the closest an audible sound gets to growing its own penis.
Transistor is contrarily an artsy isometric hack-and-slash game with a nice story and a single narrative voice that doesn't quite get as far as the penis but has some swinging bollocks going on at the very least. So I guess we know where Supergiant's comfort zone is: it's a big isometric room full of male genitalia. And I suppose we can add to that "located in a fantasy city that has been caught in a really unnecessarily complicated cataclysm, which can hopefully be established while minimizing direct interaction with other human characters because we could only afford one voice actor."
"Didn't this game come out a while ago, Yahtzee?" What the fuck are you doing in my house, viewer?! Also yes. I played it a little bit when it did come out, but for some reason, I just wasn't grabbed. Lately though, I've been banging on about how game releases are drier than your mum after I cheated on her with your dad. And every week, people have been going, "Do Transistor, you liked Bastion, agree with my opinions and thus justify my existence, blergle, blergle!" And that left me with a quandary: either I stop complaining about the release schedule, or I admit that I couldn't be arsed to finish Transistor. Both unlikely.
Finally, I took the third option: just play the fucking thing. Christ, I hate people telling me how to do my job! Whoops, sorry, that should have read, "Christ I hate people telling me to do my job!"
I suppose I had trouble getting into Transistor because the moment you walk in the door, it starts throwing shit at you like the audience at the ill-conceived Holocaust denial open-mic showcase. Starts in medias res for one thing with the main character, a red-haired woman who has lost her voice, standing over the corpse of a bloke who's just been impaled on a giant talking ice lolly that is the game's signature weapon. So all we have are questions: Who are we? Why is the ice lolly talking? Did we kill this dude? Who does our hair, it's fabulous!
On top of that, it soon becomes clear that this is a story about a city as much as it is about a weird lady and her chatty vibrator. There's a bit of a BioShock vibe in that we are in a utopia apparently based around creativity as a central ideal, where future technology is used to eternally change the city in accordance with the whims of the people. But constant changes resulted in a whole new level of stagnation and the efforts of an extremist group to remedy this are catastrophically unraveling the entire reindeer-patterned Christmas jumper.
But this is only a vague understanding that I pieced together after the fact 'cause this is a game that seems to be fucking allergic to directly stating things, and it exhausted me quickly. Bastion was similar but started off with a firm concept - city destroyed, rebuild city - that everything else builds around like a stick in a candyfloss machine. Transistor forgot the stick: it just stuck my head in the candyfloss machine and said, "Open your mouth, try not to breathe in through the nose."
Well, now that I've confessed to finding the game hard to understand and opened the fucking floodgates for smug intellectually insecure people who think I fucking care that they absorbed it quicker than Jabba the Hutt does his afternoon suppository, let's add the combat system to the pile of schoolbooks that are handed to us upon arrival. When I said the game is "hack-and-slash", it might be better described as 10 HACK 20 SLASH 30 GOTO 10. You're given numerous functions that can either be assigned to a button as an attack or assigned to an already assigned attack as a modifier or assigned to a passive slot as a buff.
That probably needs clarifying, so let's say you have a function called "Tits brackets-closed brackets." Assign it to the X button and pressing that button will launch a pair of big sweaty baps that will smash a single enemy's head around like a chickpea in a ball pit. Or you can assign "SoapyWank brackets-closed brackets" to the X button and then modify it with "Tits" so that an enemy hit by SoapyWank will suffer the additional effect of soapy titwank. Or, assign "Tits" to the passive buff slot to give your character higher defense against incoming mammary-based damage.
And like a big lovely pair of sweaty baps, this also took me a while to get my head around, but I can appreciate the ridiculous depth of customization. My usual instinct in your standard multifaceted combat system is to find one or two things that generally work and keep hitting those until something tells me to stop. But I had to unlearn that. Cunningly, Transistor withholds story documents until you use all three modes of each function in combat, which is good design as it encouraged me to experiment and discover that yes, the "Switch" power was as fucking useless as it had first seemed.
Also, the game isn't about turn-based combat but might have a face stuck in its armpit on a crowded subway train at least. You can pause the game and queue up a series of actions to execute super fast, not what you'd call free-flowing combat, but I like that it gives you thinking time to construct the best possible move. It's just that the system lies a lot. "Oh yeah, you'll totally kill all these guys with this sequence, go nuts. Oh, did I forget to mention that this forecast is based on all the enemies not moving throughout and that if we cross our fingers and wish very hard, then chaos theory will stop being a thing."
So if enemies remain alive after a queued sequence, you then can't even do non-queued attacks while it cools down and all you can do is run around the arena trying to get your bra straps back into line, which I'm not sure I like. What I'm sure I don't like is the way you lose a function each time you run out of health. You might as well just reload a save at that point, 'cos you've only got four functions at a time and losing one means being simultaneously hobbled and forced to rethink your playing style in a tight spot. It's like if at football matches, the losing team were all routinely kneecapped at half-time.
Overall, Transistor's a short game, but I wasn't left wanting more. It's ambitious, but it squeezed a bit too much into a small space. It came together eventually, but let's not forget I wouldn't have played past the first half-hour if I hadn't forced myself. I think I admire Transistor. It's bringing a veritable buffet of fresh ideas to the table (the buffet table, presumably), it's just if you're gonna abuse the unlimited salad bar for $5, get some sauce going before you make a pasta pile tall enough to get on a rollercoaster.
I should stop writing reviews just before lunch.
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