Thursday, February 25, 2016

Game Review - The Swapper (Xbox One, 2015)

In my last review, I complained about a puzzle game not going far enough with its mechanics.  A puzzle game lives and dies on the satisfaction you get from solving a difficult puzzle, so if the game doesn't build up to some truly challenging stuff, it's going to be disappointing.

The Swapper is definitely not disappointing.

The Xbox One version of the game is a port of the original PC release in 2013.  While it does suffer a bit from the shift in control scheme, the beautiful world, interesting story, and challenging gameplay are incredibly strong.  Here's what you can expect:

The Basics

The Swapper takes place on a derelict space station out in the boondocks of the galaxy.  You control an astronaut who is just looking to survive, which is not too daunting a task, given the hand-held cloning machine at your disposal.

And that forms the basis of the game's core mechanics.  You can create up to four clones at a time, but each will match your movements, so you control them all simultaneously.  These copies allow you to hold down multiple switches or reach distant objects with ease, though maneuvering them takes a bit of foresight and planning.  What's more, those clones will persist either until you touch them or they die (in the normal ways - long falls is the most common), so placing one clone poorly can force you to restart if you can't kill it easily.

Wave your clones in the air like you just don't care.
That system alone leads to some interesting possibilities, but the Swapper goes one step further - you can actually swap places with one of your clones as long as you have a direct line-of-sight.  Now, you can also reach areas that area otherwise beyond your, well, reach.

Together, these two mechanics open up a huge variety of possibilities, but to make some of the puzzles all the more puzzling, there are a couple more important mechanics.  Some areas are bathed in a particular color of light - you can't spawn clones in blue light, and red regions will block your swapping beam.  Later on, gravity enters the fray as well, allowing you to walk on ceilings and create clones that do the same.

All together, these rather simple features lead to some truly challenging puzzles.

Alongside all the puzzling, the story is told primarily through computer terminals you pass along the way.  Each message is brief, but they do a great job of building up the mythology of this particular universe.

The Good

I'm sure you can already tell that I think the puzzles in this game are fantastic.  It starts slow, with fairly obvious puzzles, but it quickly ramps into scenarios that require a lot more thought and setup.  Some puzzles even cleverly restrict the number of clones you can use by forcing you to drop one or two on switches before you can enter the main area, which is cool.  In general, the puzzles are interesting and the difficulty increases steadily but never reaches a point where it's overly frustrating.  It's damn near perfect.

Of course there's creepy machinery in this derelict space station.
The puzzles are just really well done.  I could keep rambling on about them, but let's leave it at that.

And the story is fantastic, too.  It's relatively light on narrative, focusing instead on a few little cutscenes and the terminal messages mentioned above.  That's actually a big boon, as it doesn't beat any parts of the story to death the way that a lot of games do.

But the plot itself is a fantastic sci-fi story.  I won't go into any details, but I'll say that there were a couple points where I thought, "oh, man, that's awesome," and I've become cynical enough that I don't think that too often anymore.

Even better, the graphics and sound do a fabulous job setting the stage.  The whole game looks amazing, with this beautiful style almost reminiscent of stop-motion animation.  It's really cool.

While there's not a lot of music (derelict space station, remember?), it's hauntingly beautiful when it does pop up.  The sound effects are also great, but they're not terribly memorable (are they ever these days?).  And there are little bits of voice acting scattered around, which are also very good.

Clones and colored lights.
The Swapper is just a great package all-around.

The Bad

The worst thing about the game is something that's not really that big of a deal - the controls.  Placement of clones can be a little awkward using a control stick instead of a mouse.  It never felt game-breaking, and it was rarely even a minor annoyance, but it is certainly a flaw.

The only other problem?  It's a little short, clocking in at around 4.5 hours for me.  Obviously, the length depends on how quickly you pick up the puzzles, so it could easily last 10+ hours, but I wouldn't count on it.  Also, being completely reliant on puzzles, there's basically no replay value.  It would be nice to have some optional puzzles that are really hard to give a little something to tackle after beating the game.

Empty recreational areas are almost always creepy.
Still, it's a fantastic game, and it's definitely worth checking out.  I highly recommend it.

My Rating: 9/10 - awesome.

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