Monday, November 04, 2013

The Not-Quite-Friday Review: The Swapper (PC)

In the grim darkness of the… indeterminate future, there are only clones. I apologize for skipping Friday, but everyone here at NinjaBee was celebrating All Hallows’ Eve and we neglected the blog. In honor of our recently passed holiday, I bring you The Swapper. While not exactly what most would consider a horror game, The Swapper brings a kind of solemn existential terror that seems more at home with Danish cinema than Romero guts. The Swapper is a grim exploration of identity masquerading as a claymation puzzle game. As the game wears on, a sinister mystery unfolds on the oddly designed space station Theseus. There is a lot to talk about when approaching The Swapper.

The visuals are beautiful, arresting, and made of clay. The play of light and darkness, the somber mood, the forlorn architecture, and the hauntingly minimal soundtrack are designed to engender a very specific mood. It evokes an air of the unknown, the hopelessly alien. There are few familiar touchstones to rely on, instead requiring the player to immerse themselves completely within the game’s world. The only thing that pulled me out of the game was the unusual proportions and motion of the player character. It doesn’t really work for me. But given the exceptional level of character and polish to be found elsewhere, I gave it a pass.

Players begin the game by watching a helpless space-suit clad individual being fired from an escape pod onto the surface of a barren celestial body. The stranded space-farer quickly comes into the possession of the eponymous Swapper device and returns to the Theseus. Given no exposition and an in media res introduction, the player is compelled only by curiosity and determination to unravel the mystery surrounding the seemingly derelict station. The story takes on a decidedly sinister character as it progresses, despite a lack of any actual evil to resist. The antagonists, if you can call them that, are a case of Lovecraftian unknowable terror from the darkness of space. They are so vastly different and removed from our frame of reference that they simply do not acknowledge us rather than actively seek to do humanity harm. There is also a decided element of “man is the real monster”. I won’t get into spoilers, but I certainly became uncomfortable with my callousness as the game wore on.

As to the actual gameplay, most of the game is accomplished by creating and swapping to various clones in order to gain access to some sort of energy core to power access gates so as to continue. Difficulty ramps up considerably, adding elements like limited numbers of clones, gravitational inequality, disallowed actions, and other complications. I’m not sure why the Theseus was designed in such a manner, but whoever approved the floor-plan should probably have been shot. It is a usability disaster. I hand-wave it as being a concession to game design; but seriously, worst architect ever.

There are wrinkles in the game. Many of the mechanics of swapping are poorly or not explained at all, and there are subtleties I did not discover until after banging my head against a puzzle for half an hour. To save everyone at home a headache, I’ll offer a handy tip. Time slows down when you are aiming with the right mouse button. That would have saved me a lot of early effort. There were exactly two puzzles that I felt were excessively finicky/exact. They pulled me out of the moment pretty badly because I understood how to accomplish what the game wanted me to do, but my aim being off by a fraction of an inch on one shot required me to redo two minutes of setup. The disruption to the flow of the game was glaring.

The game ends in a novel fashion for this age of instant gratification and “best endings”. I will avoid spoilers again, but… man. There really isn’t a good way to end this. Despite the ending being lose/lose, it was a deeply satisfying narrative that ended on a high note. A depressing high note, but high nonetheless. If you are having a bad day, I wouldn’t recommend The Swapper. But if you are resilient to despair in the darkness of the void, give this game a go. It is a puzzle experience not to be missed. Not only is it refreshingly new and brain-burning, it is a bit of claymation nihilism that will leave you with a poignant afternoon of thoughtful reflection.

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