Developer: Giant Sparrow
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PSN (PS3)
Release Date: October 23, 2012
Albert Einstein once said, "Logic will get you from A - Z, but imagination will take you anywhere." This rings especially true in the case of The Unfinished Swan, newcomer Giant Sparrow's first game. The storybook-like intro introduces us to an orphan named Monroe who, after his mother had recently passed away, was only able to take one of her many paintings with him: an unfinished swan. And one night, Monroe awakes to find that the unfinished swan has disappeared from its painting, so he sets off after it with his mother's paintbrush into the canvas to find it. What transpires next makes this arguably one of the most inspired games of the year, and an experience to remember.
After the prologue ends, the game begins (in first-person perspective, mind you) in an all white space where there is seemingly nothing all around everywhere you look. However, with the press of a trigger button, you discover that Monroe can toss black paint around (by means of his paint brush), and by doing so, you begin to establish that a wall is directly ahead of you. Then doorways, gates, trees begin to take shape as the paint splatters upon them; yes, there is a world hidden in the vast white oblivion all around you. By determining the contour and shape of objects in the area with the black paint, where they meet the floor, and where they lead you, you begin to discover your surroundings. And then you see it - the first sign of color in this lifeless world - a set of orange tracks in the shape of a swan's feet.
Following in the tracks' direction brings you to a river, hidden amongst the seemingly white canvas ahead. Throwing a glob of paint into it reveals a black fish that jumps out and dives back into the water (complete with a splash), disappearing from the colorless world. The ambient sounds of your surrounding also play a large part in helping to distinguish the world around you, bringing the atmosphere of a forest to life, with crickets chirping, water gurgling, and the leaves on trees blowing in the wind. As you keep throwing paint around, one glob of paint hits a toad, which immediately bounces from its perch into the water. Suddenly, a large lizard-like creature appears from under the water and moves in on the toad and snatches it swiftly, before it disappears into the depths of white completely. Silence ensues as you wonder where you are.
Throwing more paint around reveals the shape of a small bridge that spans the width of the river, eventually connecting with a staircase on the other end. At the top of the stairs, a faint music comes into hearing, and the paint reveals a hallway, with a gate at the very end. On the other side is a large golden crown seemingly floating in the air. A splotch of black paint quickly reveals its true nature: a statue with a king's face, with the crown atop his head. Not only that, but a whole courtyard of different statues; there is an entire world that exists here. A single golden letter on a wall ahead is revealed to be a giant storybook page, much like the storybook prologue had established, and the gentle, narrating voice of a motherly woman begins to tell you about a king and his quest to design the perfect kingdom.
The Unfinished Swan explores the in-game world from this narrative, and as you progress through the chapters, you'll discover more storybook pages that continue the story of the king and how he ultimately relates to the world and Monroe's journey to catch the unfinished swan. Since this is a short game, to say any more about what happens (even about its gameplay) would be spoiling the whole thing. However, the black paint on white canvas world design is not the whole game; though there are some minor areas like it later on. That section of the game is literally 10-15 minutes long, though. As the story progresses, shadows are introduced into the world, and then color.
After my first five minutes with the game, I was astounded by the aspect of uncovering a world using paint, but I began to wonder how long this style of gameplay could sustain the game and its story before its appeal wore off. The answer came at the end of Chapter 1. At that point, I was deeply impressed with the game and was ready to see what would come next. At the end of Chapter 2, I was completely blown away. Without spoiling it, The Unfinished Swan's gameplay changes and evolves by introducing a new, unique gameplay element in each chapter (three chapters total, with varying amounts of subsections to each) that becomes the focal point of progressing through the story. Like Papo & Yo, this game embraces imagination and the scope of it. It embraces the child-like wonder all of us had growing up when we would read fantastical stories of medieval cities, dragons, hot air balloons, floating castles, and more.
This is not a game you play to be wowed by insanely clever puzzles and gameplay that tests your wit. Though the gameplay was entertaining for me and there are several clever moments, it's still used mainly as a way of progressing the narrative, like in both Journey and Papo & Yo. And still yet, each new gameplay aspect was incredibly fresh and exciting in and of itself when you are first introduced to it, and lends its hand to the narrative in interesting ways. There are some somber tones to the underlying themes behind the story, but in all, the overall experience is much like a journey in which you discover and learn something; not only about the world, but about yourself.
Games should strive to be different. They should strive to surprise us. To make us feel something deep down. To make us feel like we've taken something away in the end. The Unfinished Swan attempts to do just that, and for me, it succeeded. It may not affect everyone like that, though; some people may not even get it, but at least Giant Sparrow attempted to do something bold and entirely different from an industry that increasingly looks to replicate past successes with the same types of games. In the end, the creative and intuitive uses of Monroe's paintbrush, the beautiful and enchanting music that accompanies the game; the simple, yet beautiful, stylistic and imaginative world; and the touching narrative and conclusion set this game apart from the rest. When all is said and done, The Unfinished Swan is a short, but must-play experience for those are looking for something artistically and thematically extraordinary.
+ Fantastic thematic story
+ Narrative is paced well
+ Different gameplay mechanics keep things interesting
+ Art design is astounding
+ Music is great and adds much to the story
- Very short; 2-4 hours long on the first playthrough
- Not a whole lot of replay value, except trophies
Overall Score: 9 (out of 10)
The Unfinished Swan is one of this year's most unique and touching titles. Don't miss it if you appreciate artful stories.