Transference Review: Compelling Atmospheric Thrills

Transference Trailer

Transference is a high-profile collaboration between Ubisoft Montreal and Elijah Wood's production company, SpectreVision. The game combines first-person exploration and light puzzle solving with live-action FMV sequences and a tightly atmospheric narrative based on cyberpunk and transhumanist themes, all wrapped in the shiny veneer of a pulse-pounding psychological thriller. But is Transference greater than the sum of its parts, or just a cobbled-together mishmash of half-baked ideas?

As the game begins, players are dropped into the world with little context beyond an live-action opening video, but the pieces can be assembled thanks to tremendous use of subtle environmental storytelling. Though the game has been marketed as a spine-chilling horror experience, the overt horror elements are ultimately more of a distraction than a boon; jump scares are a neat trick, sure, but they don't have the same effect as superior moments where a seemingly innocuous discovery can induce palpable chills thanks to the impressive world-building on display. Perception-challenging revelations are often hidden in plain sight, and the game refuses to deliver overt answers to the questions and scenarios it presents, forcing the player to fill in the gaps on their own, and much is left open to interpretation.

Related: Elijah Wood Shows Off First Gameplay Footage For Transference

It's worth mentioning that the full retail version of Transference was preceded by a free demo, called Transference: The Walter Test Case, which offers greater context for the larger experience and also adds extra narrative nuggets for lore enthusiasts to mull over. The canon demo also serves as a bit of consolation padding to what is arguably Transference's biggest weakness; it's short. An initial playthrough, without outside assistance, lasts around two and a half hours, with subsequent runs clocking in at half that length. On the plus side, there's no padding here; all of the puzzles are straightforward and devoid of the obtuse logic which can easily sink this type of adventure. The narrative is svelte and avoids extraneous subplots, fetch quests, menial tasks, or other inconsequential nonsense.

Transference is a tight experience. The developers wisely trimmed the fat to keep the game as immersive and cinematic as possible, which should prove extra-effective for fans of Virtual Reality gaming. The central narrative conceit of Transference is the device invented by Dr. Raymond Hayes – played by Macon Blair of the films Green Room and Blue Ruin – which captures a snapshot of someone's entire psyche and uploads it into a virtual space. It's a setting which segues perfectly into actual VR application, and the game is playable on both PlayStation VR and assorted PC headsets, though the game can still be enjoyed to its fullest using a traditional television setup (we played without VR, on a PlayStation 4 Pro).

Perhaps due to its being developed with Virtual Reality in mind, there's not much in the way of complex game mechanics. Similar to games like Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, Transference doesn't have a game over screen, and there's no combat or challenges of dexterity to overcome. The gameplay largely consists of walking around, exploring every corner of the environment, inspecting objects, and searching for lore tidbits which offer precious clues to the mysterious and provocative story, as well as hints of what to do and where to go next. Like with classic LucasArts adventure games of the distant past, stalled progress usually means having to backtrack to uncover a key item tucked away in an overlooked hiding spot.

Macon Blair in Transference

Unlike Gone Home, which featured a sprawling, mansion-like house to explore, Transference is set almost entirely in a spacious apartment – well, spacious by real world standards, at least. Using light switches and at key story beats, the player switches their perspective, in a manner of speaking. Without spoiling anything in the story, the apartment changes depending on whether players are viewing through the POV prism of Raymond, his wife, Katherine, or their son, Benjamin. Perception is reality, and this world's virtual reality is highly subject to the perception of its subjects whose experiences and sensibilities shape its virtual existence. Some of the game's greatest moments come from discovering the different ways these characters see themselves and each other, both by exploring environments and by watching collectable video diaries. These live-action vignettes feature rudimentary production values, but are elevated by strong acting and effective writing, and collecting them all shines more light on the game's mysteries.

Visually, the game gets a lot of mileage out of the reliable and versatile Unity framework. Effects like chromatic aberration and depth of field accentuate Transference's cinematic ambitions, and a surprisingly unobtrusive film grain adds warmth to the image while simultaneously smoothing over some admittedly low-res textures. The game features strong art direction; the lighting, in particular, stands out for never distracting from the gameplay, despite often soaking the screen in violent reds and glowing neon, to striking effect. The computerized "virtual reality" flourishes are a nice touch which also act as a gameplay cue, informing players that there is a puzzle to solve without breaking their immersion in the world.

As for the puzzles themselves, they're usually pretty self-explanatory, and the environment, even with three permutations, is small enough that even the most absent-minded adventurers will manage to keep from getting lost. The puzzles themselves present little in the way of challenge, and the few that do (including one involving a snowflake and a four-digit password) can be brute-forced by impatient players with just a few minutes of trial and error. Whether this is a positive or a negative trait will vary from person to person, but the game's design encourages plenty of exploration and observation; it's more involved than just moving forward from one story beat to the next, and it doesn't play itself on autopilot.

Transference aimed to be the next step in blurring the lines between games and movies. At the end of the day, it doesn't break new ground in the so-called "walking simulator" genre, but it can proudly stand next to certified classics like Gone Home and Dear Esther thanks to its engaging storyline, believable characters, provocative themes, and serviceable, if simplistic, gameplay. It offers genuine thrills and surprises while integrating live-action segments which manage to avoid being kitschy, gimmicky, or distracting. Transference, like any science fiction worth its salt, uses its fantasy trappings to examine, question, and champion the raw nerve of the human condition.

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Transference is currently available Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC for $24.99. Screen Rant was provided a PlayStation 4 copy for review.

Our Rating:

3.5 out of 5 (Very Good)
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