What if someone knew your mind better than you did?
We’ve seen a large insurgence in the past couple of years, one of high budget games that fail to deliver despite their monetary advantage. We’ve also seen a huge leap in quality from the indie scene. Games like Mark of the Ninja and Gunpoint. Without huge bags of cash from overbearing publishers behind them, indie developers have to rely on making their IP truly stand out. With a slide in quality and milking sequels recently, it’s wonderful to see some true innovation and gameplay of old.
I shall freely admit my AAA snobbery by saying I don’t play half as many indie titles as I should. I tend to stick to titles that strain the considerable horsepower of my PC. Graphical fidelity isn’t the most important aspect by any means, but that extra polish you get from the best high budget titles is something that really shines through for me in any game.
We have had some insanely good games this year, The Last of Us did some digital bar raising, and BioShock Infinite certainly bumped its head on it. Some may have been disappointed by them, but often that can be because of the hype we ourselves create. Just occasionally though, a rare game comes out of nowhere and charms our assorted superhero undies right off.
Which brings me to the source of my ramblings. The Swapper.
Made by Facepalm Games (Best. Name. Ever), which according to Steam, consists of just four people. Mr Olli Hariola, Otto Hantula, Tom Jubert and Carlo Castellano. Now this may be standard for indie games, but it’s worth noting, that the graphics you see in the game are entirely handcrafted. For the most part, it appears to be Claymation, I’m not entirely sure what other methods were used, but the result is absolutely stunning.
Playing The Swapper is like having a diorama in your PC monitor; it truly is a beautiful game. I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of work this must have taken, I’m just glad their imagination didn’t exceed their ability.
The tone is set immediately as you press begin, and that tone, is isolation. Your nameless, speechless character is jettisoned from a space vessel by the name of Theseus; you start your journey after landing on a planet that was being orbited by your former means of transport.
The atmosphere is stifling, small spaces, lack of any human contact, and confined to a space suit the entire time. That’s not to say there is no interaction, early on you hear partly garbled messages, I am assuming received through coms in your suit. There are also computer terminals along your path that drip feed information about your surroundings and its previous inhabitants.
Within minutes of the opening, you come across the two focuses of the game, the “Swapper Ray” and some oddly shaped and seemingly sentient boulders, which will quickly become known to you, as “Watchers”.
Their contribution to the story is delivered via a silent movie-esque technique. The first one of which, you can see in the top image. This almost invasive communication along with nearly inaudible echoes you hear as you wander your surroundings, are part of an ongoing synthetic form of interface with the game.
As you progress, the messages from the Watchers expand whilst remaining cryptic. You also meet another similarly dressed inhabitant of the ship, though there is always a wall or door between you, further feeding the isolation.
The pacing is perfect; each puzzle you solve is rewarded by more information, usually by way of more haunting voice overs from your new found “friend”. The intensely dark and foreboding undertones never let up, even with the games staggeringly morose conclusion.
At times I felt like I was playing a game version of a certain Duncan Jones sci-fi film, as the general unnerving ambience within The Swapper, certainly seems to mimic it. Every single sound bite, every single part of the aesthetic layout feeds into the games overall purpose of conveyance.
I would love to talk more about the story, however, this is a journey best discovered by the individual.
The mechanics however, are much more simplistic, but just as neatly executed. The Swapper Ray can be used to make up to four clones of yourself; after being spawned, they will copy your every command until you direct them to their doom, by either manoeuvring them into a pitfall, or absorbing them by direct contact. When aiming the device to make a clone, time slows down to a crawl, which you will find immensely helpful at times.
You can switch between them at any time, as long as you have line-of-sight. All of the puzzles you will solve revolve around depressing switches or the use of a moveable item, they may seem simple on the face of it, but I can assure you that there are some serious brainteasers.
These puzzles are further complicated by the use of different colour lights. Red, blue and purple. The red beam blocks the swapping ability, the blue blocks you making clones, and the purple blocks both. It works very nicely, but this is the part of the game that I found detracted from the atmosphere. The lights don’t seem to have any rhyme or reason to them being there (that I could see), other than to serve as a puzzle device. That may sound like a harsh criticism, but when considering how well put together the game is, I felt that maybe an explanation might have been nice.
My only other complaint I have in the entire experience, was that the gathering of orbs through puzzles to activate switches to progress, becomes somewhat formulaic. Again, this is something minor, and it certainly does not spoil the game.
The Swapper will take around 5-6 hours to complete, depending on your puzzle solving skills. Whilst that may sound short, I don’t think the mechanics could have carried off a longer game. For me it felt just about right.
I’ve been a huge lover and critic of games for an extensive period, whilst I haven’t been writing reviews for that long, I feel like I have always managed to articulate the experience well enough. Although The Swapper I believe, has left me wanting. It’s incredibly hard to communicate with enough eloquence, just how special this game is.
The forlorn nature of the atmosphere, the bleak unknowing of your progression, is something rarely seen at this level, on any creative platform. The beautifully crafted visuals and superb sound work grab you instantly, and the game doesn’t relinquish that hold until the closing credits.
I genuinely sat aghast after playing The Swapper; the macabre questions this game asks are not easily answered. They are truly queries that will require you to look inward for any resolve. I would actually go so far as to say that this is just as important a game as The Last Of Us. That’s how much you need to play this game.
There is no doubt in my mind that when asked, “What is your game of the year?” many will answer with BioShock Infinite or Naughty Dogs colossal hit. However I hope that at least a few of us gamers, will answer with what is, one of the best games I have ever played.
I am very much looking forward to Facepalm Games’ next offering, and I certainly hope they get the recognition they deserve for this tremendous experience. So go and pick it up, you would do yourself a disservice by missing this one.
- Some serious brain teasing puzzles
- Intense feeling of isolation throughout
- Well written dialogue
- Wonderful ambient soundtrack
- Superb story and ending