Thursday, 15 August 2013

Review: The Swapper

The Swapper is an indie puzzle game, developed by Facepalm Games which, on top of challenging you to complete a large array of puzzles, raises some interesting questions on existentialism and morality. Your nameless and faceless character crash lands on a seemingly deserted space station and, using a cloning tool which it's former inhabitants created, has to find his own way off. You quite soon discover that there is another person aboard the ship, a female scavenger, who seems more clued in on what has been happening there, but uninterested in filling you in on too much at a time. Over the course of the game, through dialogue and crew logs, you discover what happened to the space station and all it's former crew. The game ends with an interesting moral dilemma that for the first time, in a long time, made me actually pause and think - even though it had no real bearing on anything.

The gimmick behind The Swapper, what separates it from other puzzle games, is it's cloning mechanics. You can create up to four copies of yourself, which move in parallel with you, and switch your consciousness between them, as long as they are within your line of sight. Most of the challenges involve positioning your clones in such a way that one of them can pick up an orb whilst the rest are in place on switches or create a line-of-sight network to switch your consciousness along. Only the conscious clone can pick an orb up, and you can only create four clones, so you have to plan everything out carefully. Puzzles are made more difficult by lights; red lights block your ability to swap, blue lights prevent you from creating new clones within an area and purple lights prevent you from doing pretty much anything.
The premise of the game is simple, yet it raises many interesting philosophical questions – what is life? What is consciousness? When you can swap your consciousness to a new body, created seconds ago, and discard the old one – are you still yourself? At first the cloning concept just seemed like a well executed mechanic, but when I discovered that I could traverse vertical spaces, by creating a clone above myself and swapping to it, I was sort of horrified – as old clones are left to die as their soulless bodies fall to the ground, with a bone crunching impact. Clones die often and in a cavalier fashion, but I still found myself wondering about them, and even feeling sorry for them. Gravity also plays an interesting role within puzzles, many rooms have pads that invert gravity for your current clone, and any subsequent ones he makes. There are also some very serene sections where you are floating in zero gravity between sections of the station, using your cloning tool to propel you.

The Swapper looks great, environments are dark and gloomy, and for much of the game light is a commodity. You shine a light where you look, but it is never enough to truly pierce the dark, though there isn't a lot to find between levels, it just adds to the mystique. Puzzle rooms juxtapose this, as they are brightly lit with blue, red and purple lights; they are the places most shrouded in mystery, yet also the ones outwardly hiding the least. The art of the game was created using real world items, which gives it a wonderful claymation vibe, and makes it look truly unique. At the beginning of the game you arrive in a tin can rocket, which initially seems cool and quirky, but nothing else in the game looks so overtly homemade - so it ends up being unauthentic for the game.
Tonally The Swapper feels very reminiscent of the original Alien and Dead Space. It cultivates a great atmosphere through it's subdued use of sound, dark environments and enigmatic approach to storytelling. However, both Alien and Dead Space make their setting feel like real world possibilities for the future, their environments look practical - like people could actually live in them. This is one of the few places that The Swapper fails for me - the space station feels like a husk, where people could never have lived. Though there are no enemies I felt a growing sense of unease as I progressed through the game, how the game sounds reinforces this, especially the dull thud of your heavy shoes on metal runways and air whistling through the vast empty station. 

There is an abundance of indie puzzle games on the market at the moment, though it doesn't feel over-saturated to me, as there are so many interesting and inventive ones still coming out. The Swapper is not a terribly difficult game, I only truly got stuck on one puzzle for a significant amount of time, but I still felt a sense of accomplishment upon completing the game. Throughout the game the developers prod you with rhetorical questions, trying to get you to think more as you play, and this helps make The Swapper more than just another interesting idea, but also one of the most coherent and well executed games I've played all year.

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