*Much like my last two reviews for Guacamelee! and Rogue Legacy, this review does not touch on the differences between this console version of The Swapper and the PC edition released last year. As usual, head here for more reviews.*
I’m staring down a yawning chasm. I need to reach the bottom, which lies hundreds of feet below. However there’s no ladder and no steps, just two sheer walls and a straight drop. I hurl myself into the abyss and immediately plummet rapidly to my doom. With just moments to spare, time slows as I aim the small device in my hands. I fire it, and suddenly an exact clone of myself materializes in the air next to me. With another shot from the weapon, I take control of this new being, who lands safely on the ground, having fallen just a few feet. As I do, the now uninhabited form that began the descent slams into the ground with a sickening crunch, crumpling immediately. I survived, right? I’m alive and I’m moving on, but who am I? And who was that poor fellow now splattered on the ground?
Moments like that are commonplace in The Swapper, a sci-fi, sidescrolling puzzle game that tasks the player with navigating its world using a unique device. The titular tool allows the player to create four clones for the purposes of cracking the many clever puzzles the game tosses out. A secondary function also lets the player switch between control of any clone by firing a beam at them. All the clones move in unison, and the player must account for their placement and movement in order to solve puzzles. It’s a mechanic that sounds fine, if fairly pedestrian on paper. In action though, it is absolutely brilliant, making for some of the best puzzles I’ve ever played. The Swapper combines this superb core mechanic with a beautiful aesthetic, and an incredible setting that’s overflowing with atmosphere. The whole thing is wrapped in a story that deals with themes of self-identity, the soul, and what it means to be an individual. All these elements coalesce beautifully to create one of the most haunting and memorable games I‘ve played in some time.
The game begins as a nameless astronaut is sent to an abandoned space station to investigate the deaths of the entire crew. The deaths have apparently been caused by hundreds of possibly sentient space rocks brought on board. Dubbed ‘The Watchers,’ these rocks are scattered all over the station, and they each “speak” to the player when passed by – it’s rather unsettling. It’s up to the player to navigate the space station in an effort to find out what became of the crew. I won’t delve into the plot, but it’s quite strong, and told mostly in the classic, organic style of reading ship logs and piecing things together. This tried and true storytelling method fits the game perfectly, and I was very motivated to see the story play out. The ending in particular features a stand out moment that I won’t soon forget. As I mentioned before, the narrative takes on some heavy ideas, and the game benefits greatly from the heft of the themes being examined. Not many games deal with the nature of the human soul, or ask the question “what makes us ‘us?’” The fact that The Swapper tackles such heady material with such aplomb is worthy of praise all on it’s own.
Underneath the great plot and laudable philosophizing is of course a really good video game. The meat of the game is its puzzles, and the conceit is this: sections of the ship are blocked off behind gates that require a certain number of orbs to pass through. These orbs are the end goal of each puzzle. It’s certainly a very game-y system, but as with any great game focused on trinket accrual, it’s most definitely about the journey. The player must utilize clones to move boxes, depress switches, and cross spaces insurmountable to a single person. Again, those are all about as trope-y as it gets, but they’re used in such astonishingly clever ways that it doesn’t matter. Though the same set pieces are reused often, each puzzle room feels unique, and the game never gets repetitive. New twists are doled out at an appropriate pace, such as colored lights that block certain functions of the swapper. The game is constantly forcing the player to think in different ways.
I truly cannot stress how clever the puzzles are, they just need to be played. The rush of solving one is unmatched, and the many “a-ha!” moments here serve as a reminder as to why people play these kinds of games. My one real gripe is with the difficulty curve. The game is fairly easy in the early going, and doesn’t stiffen up too much over the middle sections. All of the sudden it ramps up near the end, and I found myself absolutely stymied by a small handful of downright nasty puzzles. It’s not a huge problem, but a more gradual curve would have been preferable. I suspect different players will have various opinions on the challenge curve, but in general expect some possible frustration in the later bits.
The cherry on the sundae here is the visual design. The art direction in The Swapper is outstanding, and the game is dripping with mood and atmosphere. The player is alone save for some brief moments, and the sense of isolation the game creates is astounding. The “alone in a sci-fi setting” vibe recalls the original Metroid titles, and though it’s not a horror game, the tag “2D Dead Space” gives a decent idea of the vibe at times. The station is as eerie as it gets, full of dark corridors and cavernous passages, and the wonderful lighting enhances the mood even further. Best of all, the game does a great job of mixing up the different areas of the station so as to stay fresh visually. There are lush greenhouse-esque sections full of green plants, machine rooms with rusted out industrial tones, and recreation areas bathed in warm, creamy lighting. I was amazed at the variety the developers managed to cram into the space station, and I was constantly dazzled by the creative architecture and design. Just the very aesthetic of the game is special, as it features art assets made by hand with clay. It’s a bold choice that totally works and ensures the game looks like nothing else. Finally, the cherry on top of the cherry is the beautiful, minimal score that plays throughout. It fits the mood perfectly and takes the atmosphere to another level.
*played on a Playstation 4*