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Review: The Swapper

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I usually employ these opening paragraphs as an opportunity provide a cold opening to the review at large – simply put, it’s my chance to ramble on about something kind of ancillary to the product I’m actually supposed to be talking about. For example: with The Swapper, I could talk about how claymation is pretty cool and I quite enjoy the hand-crafted look of games that employ it as their animation medium of choice. I could also (since the game’s primary mechanic is based around producing clones of yourself) question the ethics of creating perfect, obedient clones – I mean, is it masturbation if you have sex with one? No-one seems to have a straight answer regarding that. …oh, also, I guess there’s ramifications to consider with not having a way of pinning who between clones is “real”, since a perfect copy isn’t immediately distinguishable from its source, but… really, guys. Help me out. I’m super curious about the masturbation thing.

I don’t think I’ll waste your time with a big, rambling opening paragraph for this review, though. No, for The Swapper, I am going to head straight into it, because this is a game that doesn’t deserve my inanity. No, this is a game that deserves praise and congratulations and a bouquet of roses at its doorstep. So I shall not soil its dignity by talking about nasty dirty clone sex any longer! Rather, I shall commence the review – post-haste! Take it away, myself!

The Swapper (PC)
Developed and published by Facepalm Games

Before I go on to talk about the presentation, the atmosphere, the graphic style, the music, the concepts, themes, and story of The Swapper, there is something I need to get out of the way – my most immediate critique. That is this: …man, it is so gratifying to play an indie puzzle-platformer whose aesthetic and plot services the puzzles and the platforming, and not the other way around.

The Swapper’s puzzles are meticulously crafted. The learning curve is close to perfect, the introduction of mechanics and techniques are doled out subtly, leaving you to feel like you’ve figured it all out by yourself. Puzzle rooms are balanced just so, every element assembled to compliment the thought processes associated with their solving. Never once was a puzzle so frustrating that I was annoyed; and yet, never once was a puzzle so easy that I felt cheated. This could be unique to my particular thought patterns, but I can honestly say that The Swapper is the most gratifying puzzle game I’ve played in years – certainly up there with the original Portal.

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It is unique now, though, that a indie puzzle game – especially one so gorgeously rendered – has such a laser focus on its puzzles! It seems to me (though this is anecdotal) that a lot of the time, a project will be built with the intention of providing a unique hook with a striking art style. And… that’s it. Take the critically-acclaimed LIMBO, for example. It looks phenomenal, it plays unlike any other 2D platformer – a slow, methodical affair, where you have to look before you leap lest you find your face filled with pitted spikes. …the actual level design, though, is somewhat lacking. It feels like a series of off-the-cuff ideas, kind of strung together without much forethought – servicing the atmosphere as priority number one, and providing well-crafted puzzles as an added, borderline accidental, bonus.

So, yes. With The Swapper’s absolutely spellbinding visuals, atmospheric audio and perplexing plot, it is the puzzles themselves that steal the show – and it is, perhaps ironically, the most unique feature about it, considering the market its in. Congratulations are in order to the mere handful of developers who crafted this game, for their dedication to providing a fun, rewarding, intelligent puzzle game, without losing sight that the puzzles are numero uno – using them to inform the look and feel of the state of play. Congratulations, indeed.

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Not that I wish to diminish the achievement that is The Swapper’s art. It is an immediately striking game that never lets up being jaw-droppingly beautiful – a literally hand-crafted world that – despite being made of various knick-knacks; clay, paper, foil – feels vibrant and alive.

I spent a lot of the start of the game staring in awe at the environment. It’s all so stunning, every last inch of it, and knowing it was all built – or painstakingly stop-motion animated – by a handful of artists makes it all the more impressive that by the end of the game I had stopped noticing. That’s not a slight, it’s a testament to the way the game draws you in. The world is beautiful, the graphics are stellar and compelling, but I’ve often said this and I believe it to be true: immersion cannot come from unbelievably pretty graphics. If you’re spending your time in a game questioning how they made it look so good, you’ll be pulled out of the experience, often violently. The achievement in The Swapper’s visuals is that, after a while, they stop being merely an impressive trick and start to add to the uneasy, pulp sci-fi atmosphere.

To compare: my previous gold standard for games made with claymation was a point-and-click adventure game called The Dream Machine. Now, The Dream Machine looks fantastic and if you’re in the mood for a new point-and-click game you could do a hell of a lot worse. But The Dream Machine’s use of clay made it seem… unreal. Aptly dreamlike. In contrast, The Swapper’s use of clay creates a world that is believable, and grounded. The same techniques are used in both games, but The Swapper’s world feels real, it has a tangible depth, while The Dream Machine’s world feels like you’re walking around inside of a cardboard box. Again – definitely its purpose, but it is certainly impressive that The Swapper can utilize the same medium to overwhelmingly different results. (Though The Swapper does employ a bunch of 3D post-processing, like ambient lighting and bump-mapped textures and stuff, so it’s not strictly speaking pure claymation, but… it’s pretty goddamn close.)

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The story and game concept are pretty simple. Stranded on a station after being ejected into space, you find yourself in possession of a weapon called a “swapper.” The swapper allows you to create up to four clones of yourself (that mimic your every move) and swap your consciousness between them. Puzzle solving and exploration follows.

The science-fiction elements are heavy, with a window overlooking a starfield moments away at each stretch, and the technology on the station playing an important part in your making your way around it (teleports, lasers, airlocks). It’s almost an open world, Metroidvania style, but as far as progression goes it feels more akin to Terry Cavanagh’s brilliant VVVVVV – everything connected, but there being a definite linear progression through the complex.

Steeped in lore, the plot unfolds through environmental cues, some voice-overs, and text logs. I don’t really want to reveal too much here – a lot of The Swapper’s joys lie in uncovering the secrets. There’s a discomfort produced in the specifics of cloning and swapping between bodies – discarding them like outdated toys, to a point where you (to quote the game) are “a copy of a copy of a copy”. Having finished the game, I can tell you that’s definitely deliberate. That’s all I want to say though.

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I’ll say this much: there is more to it than it seems at first. There’s an actual cast of characters, for example. There’s a mystery to uncover. There’s a whole backstory to dig up concerning a bunch of very confidently told sci-fi tropes and cliches. There are questions asked concerning thoughts, individuality, mortality, morality. Nothing, however, would be worse than going into the game knowing what to expect – so, from this point on, consider my lips sealed. There’s a bunch of great stuff in the game I’m really eager to talk about, but I can’t. I really can’t. I’ve sealed my lips, y’see.

Know this: the The Swapper’s narrative elements are extremely compelling and raise some thought-provoking concepts. And know also – the narrative elements are never so heavy-handed that it feels like a definitively story-based game. It weaves a subtle yarn, a not entirely overbearing one, and is mostly hooked into level progression. That said, credit where credit is due: a lot of the plot-specific props in the later areas of the game are genuinely haunting, and there are some really curious revelations that keep you properly invested beyond the initial blast of the opening sequences. I don’t think, however, that I would have stopped playing if the plot weren’t there to string me along. I appreciate that the plot was there – but the meat of the game is the puzzling and the story knows its place in the hierarchy, giving it all the more breathing room to provide a steady undercurrent of unease and mystery.

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Like its more immediate peers, The Swapper isn’t very long. Unlike its peers, though, The Swapper is a satisfying, complete package – and a seamless whole. All the elements, from the ambient music to the most basic puzzle element, attribute to the game’s primary goal of creating a smart series of clone-based puzzles to solve. And never once does any element threaten to overshadow that. The game’s difficulty curve and narrative progression all rope together, snowballing into a satisfying conclusion and leaving you to ponder both your own achievement in outsmarting the people in the credits, and a few of the lingering narrative threads that ask questions of your own mortality and such.

The Swapper will create lasting memories, and it is perhaps entirely because it is not pretentious, it is not overburdened with mechanics, and it is not a mere, shallow fluff piece. It is a direct shot of pure, perfectly crafted intellectual brainteasers, accompanied by appropriate visuals and music, strung along on a superbly subtle plot that explores a singular theme with deftness and aplomb. It is a game that is not lost in its own grandeur, but simply lets itself play to its own strengths – as a result, creating a compelling, spellbinding, and attention-grabbing experience. It’s all over in three hours, but over its duration it never once feels anything but meticulously designed, and flawlessly put together.

And with that, there’s nothing else to say. I actually mean what I said in my inappropriately moronic opening paragraphs – this game doesn’t deserve my brand of inanity. Rather, it has earned by respect – and it deserves my praise. To be frank, it’s going to take a lot of ingenuity to match what Facepalm Games have done on The Swapper – so, y’know, if you’re an indie studio with a project on the way right now, I’m sorry. But I’m pretty confident that The Swapper has outclassed you.

Let it be known: the bar has been raised. Your move, puzzle-platformer developers.

Final Score: 10/10

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