Chilling, Eerie and Dark – even with the brightness on max.
“Oh no… it’s another puzzle game Robert. Don’t play it, you’re only going to feel dumb again,” the small voice in my head begs me. Admittedly, me and puzzle games haven’t exactly had a good relationship since the Portal franchise, but The Swapper just looks far too good to pass down.
The Swapper is a side-scrolling puzzle platformer by indie dev Facepalm Games in which you explore the mysteriously abandoned space station Thesus. The core mechanic of The Swapper resides in the Swapper device which allows you to create and place up to 4 clones of yourself in various different areas. The clones you create will follow your exact movements and you can swap between and inhabit each one, creating scenarios where you use your clones to reach previously inaccessible areas.
The real challenge is presented when various light beams block certain functions of the Swapper device. For example red lights will stop you swapping to clones in an area, blue lights will stop you from placing a clone. It’s a basic set of mechanics but they lead to some pretty complicated puzzles and particularly interesting gameplay.
Aesthetically, The Swapper is nothing short of gorgeous. The environments you explore all feel ever so slightly off and imperfect which, in addition to the misty lighting effects, create a really unique art-direction that I can honestly say I haven’t seen anything quite like it before. I’m a big fan of dark Sci-Fi and The Swapper really does make me weak at the bionical knees.
The levels aren’t super futuristic and polished, but they’re not completely over the top run-down either. There’s a large amount of variety in the level design which prevents the levels from becoming too repetitive. As a matter of fact, the character and environment assets used for The Swapper were modelled in clay first and then imported to the game which adds a very unique weathered look. Gritty atmosphere details like this left me drawing a lot of parallels with games such as Limbo. You could even argue it almost triggers that slightly-off uncanny valley feel which is definitely appropriate for a game with such sinister and immoral undertones.
The level design is best described as semi linear.
From a structural perspective, The Swapper is unusual. As you explore the space station you will discover various large chambers which each contain several different puzzle rooms for you access. In each puzzle room there’s an orb, usually sitting in the most awkward place imaginable, that you collect to make your way further through the space station.
The level design is best described as semi linear; you will need to explore all of the areas and collect all of the orbs eventually to progress, but in what order you do so is mostly up to you. This leaves you the ability to leave puzzles if they get too difficult and come back to them later. Thankfully the addition of a comprehensive map and the selection of teleporters scattered about the place saves you from the monotonous boredom of walking around areas you’ve already been to. In addition, the map will occasionally tilt and flip depending on the orientation of the room you’re in, which can be slightly disorienting, but not to the point of complete confusion.
The vast open lobbies which you’ll find yourself in will require you to create clones and swap to them like temporary stepping stones, before they plummet to their deaths, to be able to reach other puzzles. The constant birth and death of your clones in order to progress in the game feels particularly unethical (I can’t imagine this getting past Health and Safety) but equally pivotal to the story and the general ambiance and feel of The Swapper.
Your clones feel disposable and occasionally you’ll even find yourself swapping to other ends of the room just to save you a couple seconds from walking. Through the act of creating and disposing of these clones you become a monster to the point where you don’t even think twice about murdering a few clones to reach new areas. It’s fair to say that the subject of this game is pretty dark, but not as dark as I think it could have been. I’d have liked to have seen it taken just a little bit further but I think The Swapper aims to creep you out rather than outright scare you which it does very effectively.
The soundtrack manages to be harrowing yet simultaneously beautiful and matches the abandoned environment perfectly. The sound design should also be praised. From the sound of swapping between clones to the faint hiss of your spacesuit rupturing as you fall to the ground – everything feels natural and organic, drawing you further into this environment. A pair of decent headphones and playing with the lights off is definitely recommended.
Narratively, The Swapper is a case of exploratory discovery. From the get go you’re immediately thrust into a world shrouded in mystery. Piecing together bits of information one by one, you slowly get a larger understanding of what The Swapper is all about (no spoilers here folks). Luckily there’s a ton of extra backstory fed to you through in snippets via memory terminals which can be found throughout the levels. It leaves you intrigued and just a tiny-little-very-extremely-bit creeped out but you are always left wanting to discover more. It borrows from a lot of different areas of science fiction; perhaps too many which leaves some aspects of the story feeling neglected. Honestly the less I say about the story the better because I think The Swapper’s story is best experienced rather than told.
the challenge goes from being clever and logical to fiddly multi-step puzzles which, from a gameplay aspect, just leave you wanting to quit.
Much like other puzzle games, the length of The Swapper hinges greatly on how susceptible you are to remorsefully Googling extensive walkthroughs, but you can expect to complete The Swapper un-aided within the better part of 5 hours. Perhaps a little short but I don’t think the gameplay mechanics allow for a longer game as they’re really not developed in many ways.
It definitely ends at the right time although towards the end I feel that the difficulty treads a little too close to the line between challenge and fun. Perhaps that is to be expected at the end of a puzzle game but in my opinion the challenge goes from being clever and logical to fiddly multi-step puzzles which, from a gameplay aspect, just leave you wanting to quit.
Perhaps even more frustrating is that every single puzzle is needed to be completed to finish the game, reinforcing the Googling walkthrough mind-set, which is a shame. If you don’t get a puzzle in the first five minutes, you’re probably not going to get it in the next 20 minutes either. Some puzzles just click whilst others just look impossible. I would have liked to have seen a slight surplus in the orbs needed to progress further, or an extra few puzzles just in case you can’t work one out. This is absolutely my biggest gripe about The Swapper.
I think the puzzle game formula is undoubtedly very difficult to get right. Obviously some people are going to find puzzles harder than others and something I may have found hard, someone else may have breezed through, and vice-versa . Only with play-testing do developers get a feel for difficulty within their games and I get the impression that perhaps The Swapper wasn’t play-tested enough. That said, people who love the challenge will adore The Swapper, but I don’t think that the general public have that persistent drive required to play it without a slight hint of frustration.
From a purely visual perspective The Swapper is just wonderful to spend a moment to gawk at, given at how well it’s presented. I was having a hard time selecting screenshots, but the lack of progression in the mechanics and fiddly gameplay leaves it feeling somewhat hollow. The story is particularly engrossing and the general atmosphere is stellar, but it’s greatly overshadowed by the gameplay being overly cruel.
For the most part The Swapper is 80% enjoyable but that last 20% really brings it down. Maybe if you’re the type of person who sits in the basement watching 7-hour long tutorial videos online of how to solve 17 sided Rubik’s cubes, then perhaps you would have more fun playing it than I had. Unfortunately I’m not, and that makes me a little sad that I couldn’t enjoy The Swapper as much as I would have liked.
- Stunning aesthetic and atmosphere
- Great core game mechanic
- Engrossing narrative
- Fiddly multi-step puzzles
- Little progression in the mechanics
CPU: Dual Core CPU (2.2+ GHz Dual Core CPU or better)
CPU Speed: Info
RAM: 1 GB
OS: Windows XP SP3
Video Card: GeForce 8800 or Radeon HD4800 series, 512 MB of memory
Sound Card: Yes
Free Disk Space: 1 GB