This review has been updated to also reflect the Wii U release of The Swapper.
CHANGING MINDS ON SPACE-PUZZLERS
It had only been a week since my review of Constant C–a sci-fi platform puzzler with an overarching story about the mass death of a space station–when I was tasked with reviewing The Swapper. Avid readers of this site will know that Constant C is the lowest reviewed game on our website to date. Let’s just say I wasn’t thrilled to be playing another “space puzzle” so soon. After ten minutes of playing The Swapper, my mind had been changed. After thirty minutes, I was hooked by the captivating story. By the end, I had questioned all of my in-game decisions and immediately dived back in. The Swapper is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale genre and will undoubtedly change the minds of non-believers.
For a brief history on The Swapper, the game was developed by Facepalm Games and released on PC in May 2013. While the game garnered an overwhelmingly response from critics, it stayed a PC only title until this August (where it is launching on all current PlayStation consoles).
In The Swapper, you play as an unnamed, voiceless protagonist stranded on a seemingly abandoned space shuttle, named Theseus. Nearly ten minutes into the game, you are given the titular tool, the Swapper, which gives you the ability to create a clone of yourself and transmit your soul over to it. Of course, doing so renders your previously-inhabited body soulless–merely a tool to a puzzle. Countless times you will be made to kill off hundreds of yourselves only to climb a room or open a hatch.
Every puzzle in the game revolves around the Swapper; at first you are merely using it to bridge gaps or climb to the top of the room. However, soon the game will ask for more precise timing, merging clones, and coordinating jumps to complete a task. The prize for completeing each puzzle is the same: energy orbs that are used to power the space station, allowing access to further puzzles and story points.
As far as the puzzles go, The Swapper manages to find the perfect fit of formulaic, head-scratchingly difficult scenarios that really test the limits of your tools. Each puzzle has a definite answer, one that is easily solved early on in the game, but can lead to decent lulls in momentum later on. However, that is how a puzzle should be — if I was ever stuck on anything, I knew there was a distinct combination to look for. Each time I solved a puzzle, it was met with an “Of course! How did I not see that?!” Compared to other games that will be either blisteringly hard, incredibly easy, or based entirely on luck, The Swapper manages a learning curve to keep you challenged with an answer always in reach.
While the puzzles are the true measure of the game, it is worth noting that the setting and characters are crafted from clay objects and everyday materials. While fascinating to look back on, I would have never noticed. While playing the game, all I was able to recognize was the chillingly beautiful scenery, the brooding silence, and the brilliant lighting. This is the first truly atmospheric space game I’ve played since the original Dead Space, and it probably exceeds that.
While Facepalm does a fantastic job at setting the scene, its real purpose is to set the mood for the overarching story. After picking up the Swapper, your protagonist is looking for an escape, a way to get off the doomed vessel. On the way, you find the secrets of Theseus’ mission, what caused the mass destruction of the ship, and the background behind the Swapper. I am staying intentionally vague to not spoil anything about the story. However, this is one of the most thought provoking narratives to date through expertly tying gameplay mechanics into the story. The game juggles around the questions “What is a soul?” or “After how many swaps are you no longer yourself?”, the latter drawing heavily from Theseus’ Paradox. By the end of the game, I had chills running down my spine as I looked at some of the decisions I was forced into. If you are a fan of narratives, philosophy, or any type of sci-fi, this is a must play.
The Swapper is both Cross-Buy and Cross-Save; if you grab it from the PlayStation Store, it will be available on the PS3, PS4, and Vita. That said, I highly recommend playing it on the PlayStation 4 — it doesn’t stand tall against its PlayStation brethren by much, but it does deliver the most consistently smooth experience of the three. Playing on the Vita was fun on the go, but never quite matched the quality of playing on a big screen. All three are worth playing; I will be repeating the title to completion on all of them.
Wii U Update by Matt Middleton:
The Swapper also runs and plays incredibly well on Wii U. The previously mentioned atmosphere is kicked up another notch when using the GamePad, as the low tones coming from the television now also resonate from the GamePad speakers. This creates a nice ambiance for playing the game. Curve Studios did a fantastic job porting the game to the Wii U, as it still looks fantastic and holds up well against other versions. In terms of how the GamePad is utilized for playing, it can be used to display the useful minimap or the text logs found on terminals throughout the games. However, users can also opt for the intimate off-screen experience and play The Swapper on the GamePad. The complete experience including the aforementioned audio is replicated nicely on the small screen. While these additions don’t necessarily make the Wii U version the definitive version, you wouldn’t be missing out if you chose to play it on the Wii U. It stands up well with the versions on other platforms. Experience this game however you can.
The Verdict: 9.6 out of 10
The PlayStation 4 has been out for nearly a year, but The Swapper stands head and shoulder above other narrative experiences so far. Facepalm Studios is able to mesh gameplay and story expertly into a five hour trek through beautiful and chilling environments. While puzzle games have never been my forte, The Swapper offers a dynamic learning curve and puzzles that seek to challenge you–not stump you. While the game is by no means cheap for an indie title ($19.99), it will be the best $20 you spend on the PlayStation Store all summer.
For more information about what the score means, check out our official review scale.
Lou Contaldi is MONG’s Executive Editor. In his off time, he enjoys being aggressively mediocre at Hearthstone. You can follow his incoherent ramblings at Twitter.
This review is based on a review copy game that was provided by the publishers. The reviewer has spent five hours 100%ing the title, which he plans on repeating in the next couple of days.