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Review: The SwapperThe Swapper Curve Studios Facepalm Games Puzzle Platformer Nintendo Wii U
Developer: Facepalm Games/Curve Studios
Publisher: Facepalm Games
Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Wii U
Release Date: November 6, 2014
ESRB: E for Everyone
This review is based on the Wii U version of the game
Every time I heard about The Swapper after it arrived on PC mid-2013 it was almost always met with unanimous praise. But, because of my general anti-PC gaming sentiment, I stubbornly managed to ignore those positive voices until more than a year after. By now the cult-classic The Swapper has made its way to various other platforms including the PS3, PS4, PS Vita, and now finally the Wii U, and has left me with no more excuses to not play it. Was it finally worth abandoning my ignorance under a rock or would my consciousness have been better placed elsewhere?
For something that shares the E rating, The Swapper somehow manages to feel very unsettling. It’s not unsettling because the game is necessarily scary, but because it has a real strong sense of isolation and foreboding. This is communicated in a lot of ways from intriguing journal entries, ambiguous messages placed throughout, and the in-game visuals. The Swapper does a great job at crafting a real sense of atmosphere and smartly, but gradually, introduces you to its world and nuances.
This carries over to the gameplay as well in regards to the puzzle/platformer focused design. There are two primary mechanics to keep track of, those being the Swap and Clone mechanics. The first of these introduced is the Clone mechanic in which you are able to create up to four duplications of yourself, and the second allows you to Swap between which of these clones you want to directly control. Though neither of these mechanics are completely unique to video games individually, it is how they are cleverly handled together that makes them feel consistently fresh during the experience.
The crux of the gameplay is centered around exploring a space station and implementing those key mechanics to progress. The general flow of this involves collecting specific orbs, which are obtained in what are essentially puzzle rooms, and reactivating parts of the facility with those same orbs in order to help escape. Having said that, it does feel much less straightforward in the midst of actually playing because of the ambiguity of the setting and its many branching areas.
What I like the most about the game design in The Swapper is how it doesn’t deliberately tell you what to do. From exploring the space station to learning more about what is going on narratively to naturally allowing you to figure out puzzle solutions for yourself, it generally respects the player's own ability to progress forward. Almost every puzzle adds an extra layer of depth to the established mechanics and smartly inverts how you arrive to solutions, sometimes literally. Puzzles get surprisingly complex, but they also become that much more satisfying when they are complete because the player knows full well what they did in order to figure it out.
Still, the game does lose a bit of steam near the end for both puzzle design and, arguably, narratively as well. Some of the later puzzles feel rather devious because their solutions can be undone very quickly. This can be rather annoying considering how much prep work is required, including precision Clone placement and quick Swap timing, so you may inadvertently have to start over and not really feel like you entirely figured out what you did wrong. Another wrinkle is the abrupt endings. I'm sure they can spur philosophical discussions among more enthusiastic fans, but by themselves it feels like they aim more for the initial shock of a twist than addressing prior intrigue that is built up. These are both minor in the grander picture of its generally quite satisfying and smart puzzle design, but it is disappointing that it slightly undermines what is built up prior to it.
As with Wii U port tradition, the gamepad serves as a multi-use secondary screen. It can be used to view the map, unlocked story logs, and can also be the primary screen. It’s nothing complicated, but it generally works well and I found it neat for the story logs in particular. When using the gamepad as the primary screen you can have the touchscreen replace commands that require the shoulder buttons, like the Swap/Clone mechanics. I occasionally used the touchscreen for Clone placement, just because analog placement can be rather fidgety at times, but its touchscreen usage is pretty negligible otherwise just because of the gamepad's inherent lack of quick multi-touch responsiveness.
The Swapper is a refreshing take on puzzle-focused gameplay. It respects the player's own ability to progress by weaving some truly complex, yet satisfying puzzles while crafting a really strong sense of atmosphere to accompany them. It may have its head in the wrong place near the end due to some minor pacing missteps, but everything prior to it does a great job of playing with expectations as a rewarding, if not a bit ominous, puzzle/platformer title.
+ Strong sense of atmosphere that is both very interesting and unsettling
+ Very clever uses of its puzzle mechanics
+ Game design is pretty seamless and allows the player to naturally learn its nuances
- Some puzzle solutions get pretty devious later on
- Not very long and endings feel abrupt
Overall Score: 8 (out of 10)
In many instances The Swapper exudes intricate, rewarding puzzle design and an immersive sense of atmosphere that certainly warrants the curiosity of puzzle fans
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Wii U code provided by the publisher.
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