Starting in a beautifully depicted futuristic city scape you pull an electronic sword from a body and you’re on your way. No explanation is given and no background about the world or yourself is forthcoming. The player, like the character you control is thrown in, as if awakening from some strange dream and this gives a wonderful sense of mystery and discovery as you progress.
From the outside this may look to share some similarities with Bastion. The perspective is the same and there is also a narrator of sorts, although he is talking to the female protagonist as you go. Right at the start you begin to think this is going to be another hack and slash but then about five minutes in it asks you to hit the freeze button and everything changes.
Here, you suddenly realise you are actually in a real time/turn based cross over style RPG. You can execute attacks in real time (and even boost them to activate almost instantly), but the real trick is mastering the freeze system. Hitting the button stops everything and you then have an action bar you can use up before the enemy moves again. It’s kind of like the V.A.T.S system in Fallout 3 or the system at work in Vagrant Story.
During this time you can move around and stack up attacks. Pressing the button again sends you into action like a blur across the screen. The downside is that you then can’t use any attacks or special moves until the bar has regenerated in full. The more attacks you use, the longer the bar takes to recharge. This means you have to be extremely careful about what you are doing as you are often slower than the enemy robots sent to stop you. It’s essential to get in, attack and get back out to a place you can safely recharge as avoiding damage otherwise is almost impossible and you’ll be downed in no time.
If your health bar depletes while you have charge time you’ll get a chance to move away from danger. If not, one of your powers will be damaged and unusable until you make it to two save points. This severely limits your attacking options and often leads to a daisy chain effect of you losing all your powers and flat lining. On the off chance you are finding things too easy you can also add a number of handicaps as you go which increase difficulty and the amount of experience you gain.
The options you have to play around with are numerous and can be set up in a ton of different ways. This is one of Transistors strengths but we can see it easily overwhelming some players. When you gain a power you can do one of three things with it. Equipping it in an active slot will allow the player to use it via a button press. This could be a long range attack, a fast dodge, an area effect attack or something like summoning a creature to assist you. All attacks have different speeds in real time combat and few of them work fast enough to run through the game hacking away without the freeze system.
Each active power can also be boosted by equipping powers as support. For instance, you could take the bouncing bomb power and add it to your long range attack, thus making the attack ricochet off enemies and into others. You can add two boosters to each active attack which opens up all sorts of crazy possibilities. Finally, you can add powers to your passive support slots. This means they normally do things like boost player speed or increase resistance. Any power can be assigned to any slot on any other power so finding the perfect combination will require some thought and the possibilities are just about endless. The only limit on what you can do is that each power takes up a certain number of points and once that hits maximum nothing else can be equipped.
While you are getting used to the combat you’ll be experiencing some absolutely beautiful visuals. The Neo Noir tone of the game is offset by stunning, neon tinged environments full of small details and snippets of information about the world you’re exploring. It reminded us of an isometric Deus Ex or the SNES version of Shadowrun if the rundown world had been replaced with some kind of semi-utopian society. There are also a few pretty big nods to Final fantasy VII in there as well. It’s gorgeous and the musical score and sound effects also help to build a picture of a once perfect, now lonely world where something seems to have gone wrong very quickly.
Overall, Transistor is a triumph of both style and design. It takes some getting used to and you’ll need a PC running comfortably above the minimum specs to get a smooth experience but Super Giant Games have tried something a little different here and it works. There’s the odd pacing issue and players will need to spend some time getting used to how the combat works but it’s a rich and rewarding experience and something that you’ll likely return to long in the future.