Strip away all of Transistor’s cool neon-noir sci-fi trappings and the game’s a love story between a woman and a sword. There’s more to it than that, but it’s telling that the majority of the story is told through combat: The only way to decrypt the backstory is to use each of the 16 attack “functions” in their active, passive, and upgradable forms. Even the main plot is mainly guided by the rhythm of battle, beginning with Red pulling the giant Transistor sword out of a corpse (“We’re not going to get away with this,” the sword mechanically, melancholically announces) and unfolding in exceedingly linear fashion, as the Transistor guides you from objective to objective. The game can be completed without understanding a lick of the Matrix-y plot, in which the shadowy Camerata cull Cloudbank’s most influential population for their own idealized society, but until you master the basic mechanics, you won’t even learn that much.
Fortunately, Transistor is forgivingly designed in favor of experimentation. If the evasive powers of Jaunt() aren’t doing it for you, you might swap in the temporary invisibility of Mask(); as an alternative, you might equip Mask(Jaunt()), which not only allows you to hide, but also speeds up the recovery of your Turn() meter, a special function that allows you to freeze time and plan out your next moves, juggling together the most brutally efficient chain possible. In this mode, the game feels a bit like a cross between Parasite Eve and The World Ends with You, though there are far more combinations here—literally thousands, to the extent that some battles almost play out like puzzles. Get() will pull enemies closer, allowing you to debuff, damage, and stun the whole lot with Void(Flood(Crash)), with a power move like Cull() as the coup de grâce.
Of course, the first six-hour run through Transistor is a far less flashy affair. You begin with a limited number of MEM (memory) slots in which to install these functions, let alone sockets in which to upgrade them, and although the game occasionally allows you to choose the order in which you learn new abilities, it’s not until the second playthrough (Recursion mode) that the battle system shows its full potential. Enemies also evolve at this point—for instance, the Snapshot 3.0 will obscure your vision in Turn(), while the Cheerleader will begin to shield itself too. This all further demonstrates how combat outshines the story: Short of the occasional bit of new flavor text (and your increasing understanding of the plot), the only reason to replay is for the sheer mayhem of procedurally generated waves of enemies and a nearly limitless arsenal with which to counter them.
Transistor also packs a few other great design choices. As in Bastion, you’ll gain the option of increasing the difficulty in exchange for more experience, and the soundtrack and narration is surprisingly on par with the previously high bar set by Supergiant Games. The whole package is so neatly put together that the more you play, the less it actually matters what it’s all about; the challenge is compelling enough. And if that’s not enough, there are also a series of optional tests that examine how well you can dodge, how quickly you can destroy, and how efficiently you can use the Turn() system. I said initially that Transistor was a love story between a woman and her sword; in truth, it may be a love story between the user and his or her console.