Transistor put to the test - too smart for fun

Author: Tobias Veltin, Patrick Mittler
Date: 2014-05-20 18:00:00
The Bastion makers are making a new bastion with transistor and are overshooting the mark with it. Our test explains why an indie game can be too clever.

Whoever plays transistor shouldn't have a problem with question marks. So now comes the first and last exclamation mark of this test: Yes, that's exactly how we imagined the successor to the great Bastion ! Transistor is again beautifully hand-drawn, has an outrageously great soundtrack, the same English speaker, again an experimental narrative and again an interesting combat system.

Fans of the indie pearl of 2011 are guaranteed to please transistor. However, transistor has a profound problem that runs like a red thread through the whole game: It wants to be even more artistic, even smarter than its predecessor and present itself a little too penetratingly as an oh-so-clever »indie« title. So much so that it tends to lose sight of the "primitive" fun of playing and instead bombard us with countless open questions. For example…

What the heck are we doing here?

Without a lot of pen reading (read main menu), transistor knocks us straight into the game. A lady kneels in front of a man with a broadsword - the eponymous transistor - stuck in his chest. The gun begins to speak, in the familiar voice of Bastion narrator Logan Cunningham. This time he makes you melancholy and hoarse: “Hey Red, we can't get away with that, can we? Pull. ”So we and Red - that's obviously the lady's name - pull the huge gun out of the corpse.

What follows is a consistently straightforward search for answers. For Red and her mysterious sword, but above all for us. Because Transistor does not serve us its background story on a silver platter. We only learn more about our surroundings in bits and pieces. Apparently we are in the futuristic city of Cloudbank, whose inhabitants were carried off by a mysterious so-called "trial".

It eats up the colorful city like a kind of disease and swarms killer robots that look like the wet dream of an Apple developer. In addition, an equally mysterious organization called Camerata is to blame for Red's current situation and of course our babbling sword also plays a central role. The consciousness of the mysterious dead from earlier is trapped in it.

Mysterious! But that clears up, doesn't it?

Yes, but it'll take a while until then. Transistor is passionate about throwing contextless terms and snippets of story around and thus fragmenting its background story a tad too much for our taste. A telling example: with our sword we absorb new skills from deceased supporting characters. Instead of simply telling us who the dead are, we have to unlock the information a little bit by using the person's ability. We can ignore that, but then we have even less idea who the hell is talking about our sword again.

Meticulous collectors who like to build an overall picture from many small puzzle pieces can find their way around this thicket of stories best. Usually, however, there are always new questions. Motivating »Oh, that's how it is.« - moments are again too few and far between. In other words: Transistor wants to tell its story in an incredibly clever and twisted way - but makes the simple enjoyment of an admittedly good story unnecessarily complicated.

On the other hand, the audiovisual enjoyment is simple: transistor is beautifully hand-drawn, cleanly animated and musically a small work of art. In addition to the great sword narrator, the music is particularly impressive: we would immediately give the incredibly harmonious mixture of post-rock, pop and electronic sounds the GamePro award "Best Soundtrack 2014" - if we hadn't just invented it.

Is this also getting down to business?

Clear. In Transistor, we grapple with the robots of the process in a mix of real-time action and lap tactics. Either we just hit the enemy, which is usually of little use and is only good for clearing up weaker enemies. It's better to activate the "Turn ()" mode (the bracket is not a typo - transistor actually claps "()" often at the end of a word). We pause what is happening and conveniently select actions that Red then carries out at lightning speed in the order previously set. In addition, we only have to collect the cells of defeated opponents, otherwise the enemies will be on their feet again after a short time.

So we string together chain attacks, dash the enemy in the back or dash quickly out of range. However, this planning mode only allows a certain number of actions and has to be recharged in real time after each use. Because our abilities are then blocked for a short time, tactically skillful use is required. This usually works quite satisfactorily, but the solution is a bit vague.

At first glance it is often unclear why we did not cause as much damage as was indicated in advance. We can only guess ourselves whether the opponent has now been thrown out of the range of our attack or whether he has turned around in a fraction of a second and we therefore no longer deal bonus damage from behind. The collision query and hit accuracy are not always on point and for the perfect chain reaction we have to fiddly and precisely position Red. That often slows down the fighting unnecessarily.

What does Red have in the box?

We collect a whole range of skills over the course of Red's Odyssey and they are without question the highlight of the combat system. At the frequent checkpoints, we can combine the skills in almost any way. Almost at will because we can only take a certain number with us - otherwise it would be too easy.

Each skill has three possible uses: as an active skill that we execute at the touch of a button, as an upgrade for such a skill, or as a passive ability. Two examples: Bounce () is a ricochet lightning as a primary attack, adds chain reactions as an upgrade to another ability, and in the passive slot it grants Red a defensive shield.

Or help (), which either conjures up a fighting companion for us, prevents the annoying cell spawns as an upgrade or gives a passive 25% chance for a super turn (), in which we can launch a special attack that destroys everything. The umpteen functions, from various attacks to teleport to stealth capabilities, are a fine playground for experimentation.

And do you have to let off steam?

Yes, that is almost a must, because in return the mysterious "process" also brings up varied opponents. Some fire from a distance, others aggressively pursue us in close combat. Repair stations heal enemy colleagues, small shield robots protect their offensive buddies and the handful of fat bosses not only hit us with painful attacks, but often have a whole bunch of annoying minions in their luggage. It is therefore advisable to have an effective combination of skills ready for the respective situation. And even experienced gamers won't be able to avoid a bit of trial and error.

As in Bastion, we can determine the demands and rewards of the battles ourselves. To do this, we select so-called limiters at storage points, which raise the demand. “Resilience”, for example, gives the respawn cells a nasty protective shield. In return, the limiters also give us a boost in experience points - the more we switch on, the higher it turns out. And the faster we learn new skills, because they are classic for a level-up.

Also known from Bastion: Via special doors we switch to a kind of training hub every now and then, in which we master various challenges (dexterity, planning, speed, etc.), listen to the soundtrack, try out our skills in peace or lie in the hammock ( also brings a few thoughts from Red and the transistor to light). That's nice for a few minutes, but nothing more.

And what is the problem now?

It feels like we spend almost as much time understanding transistor as playing it. Transistor does not want to explain, it needs to be understood - even explanations of the combat system are limited to an absolute minimum. Yes, those who take the time and the will to learn will at some point discover an exceptionally well thought-out and clever action adventure. But if you hit too many hooks, you shouldn't be surprised if the player loses sight of the goal and gives up in exasperation.