Transistor begins with a scarlet-haired woman standing over a fallen man. She cuts a tragic figure, a sparkling city shining in the distance beyond her. Sticking out of the man is an unnaturally large turquoise sword. We watch for a moment as the woman seems to mourn this man, taking his coat and putting it on, its warmth only scant protection from the night.
Then the sword begins to speak.
This is Transistor. You control Red, a woman who has taken this talking sword, this “Transistor”, to find those who killed her friend and left her for dead. To do so, you must navigate a city that is beginning to fall apart. The setting is gorgeous: a mixture of 1920’s art deco, a dark Bladerunner-esque dystopia, and a cyberpunk aesthetic that can often make one think of the neon-lined computer world of TRON. As the city goes through different phases of disrepair, you wander through scenes that are nothing short of jaw-dropping. Even destruction has a haunting beauty in this game, and I will freely admit to stopping more than once to take it all in.
In Transistor, the writers are not afraid to leave you wondering. What I just told you is virtually all that you know as you begin the game; you hit the abandoned streets immediately, trying to make sense of why you are here. And let me emphasize the emptiness of this world. There are enemies aplenty, but people to talk to are few and far in between. Your only true companion is the Transistor, a sword that somehow has the capacity to talk. This sword becomes your rock and solace in a world that is strange and hostile to you.
It is impossible for me to emphasize enough how much you come to rely on the Transistor as a source of information, a way to defend yourself, and as a friend keeping you from the brink of despair. The relationship between Red and the Transistor is given even more weight when you come to realize that Red’s voice has been taken away from her. Consequently, your wanderings through the city feature the running commentary of a sentient sword, given vivid life by one of the most brilliant voice actors I’ve ever heard (Logan Cunningham). The Transistor is hopeful, uncertain, and confident all in one; he is a truly three-dimensional character which is made all the more impressive considering that, at the end of the day, all you get is a voice.
Red herself is alternately strong and vulnerable, trying to stand up to a world that seems out to bring her down. She is able to respond to the Transistor by typing out replies at computer terminals that she finds. It is a simple touch, but watching Red type out her answers, think, and then delete and reword what she wants to say makes for a unique way to get into her head. You get a deep sense of her emotional state. At times it becomes almost heartbreaking to watch, seeing the two characters struggle to find hope and meaning beyond the horrible events that befall them.
If the haunting imagery of the city and the relationship between Red and the Transistor form the heart of this story, then the brains of it is in the gameplay. Red and the Transistor are a formidable team. Red uses the sword to defeat the unsettling and bizarre cybertronic enemies that stand before her. You come to learn unique powers that the sword can use in battle, from emitting beams of light to letting you zip around the city in blink-steps that leave liquid shadows behind you. You can mix and match your powers in many ways, creating void spheres that kick enemies in the air or massive explosions that seize control of all enemies within it for a limited period of time. Through the entirety of the game I was unable to test out every possible combination; there are so many options at your fingertips that the combat often becomes a fascinating chess-like game of infinite variance. And this does not even mention your ability to carefully plot out your movements in frozen time, setting up each combination that you want, executing them all in milliseconds as the Transistor and the music roar out in victorious cadence.
All of these factors coalesce into a game that is not only beautiful and moving, but also engrossing and genuinely fun to play. It is a shorter game than most, but there is so much going on here that, after finishing, I immediately started over a second time, not wanting it to end. As I finished, I turned to my girlfriend and, without hesitation, pointed to Transistor as one of my top 5 favorite games of all time. The story of Red and the Transistor really spoke to me and made me yearn for more of this dark and haunting cyberpunk tale. It is not often that I even think about crying over a video game, but I admit I came close at the end. Such is the power of this story.
As a parting comment, I want to apologize for my vagueness in this review. I feel like I could go into greater depth regarding the story, the characters, and how the events play out. But my goal is not to spoil, it is to encourage you to experience this yourselves. So go now and do that. It is only $20. But, I assure you, it is worth every penny and more.