I hate The Swindle. Buy it immediately.
I didn’t want to go to bed last night and I didn’t want to come to work today. I only want to play The Swindle now.
The Swindle launched earlier this week and after taking a look at an explanatory trailer I thought: yep, there’s one of the year’s indie hits. I carefully decided not to put it in my life; I’m so behind on my pile of shame that I had to take a day off to do a bit of catch up.
Then creator Dan Marshall offered me a copy. By this stage The Swindle was blowing up on Twitter; everyone I knew was talking about it. There’s only so much peer pressure I can resist, you know?
Many of my friends and colleagues in UK games media have avoided reviewing The Swindle because they know Marshall personally. I don’t know him, but I do sometimes chat with him on Twitter in a friendly manner. I do not think this has coloured my opinion of The Swindle, but you may make up your own mind on that and elect to exit the article immediately.
Accepting was a mistake. This was an error on the same scale as Desktop Dungeons or FTL, games that reduced my productivity by a measurable degree (about 15%) for weeks on end. Already The Swindle is eating my life. All I want to do is go on heists and scream creative swear words at it.
The Swindle is not fair; like the best rogue-likes, you’re going to lose a lot, and often it won’t be your fault. Sometimes you just won’t be able to deal with what the procedurally-generated levels throw at you. Other times the steep learning curve (there’s no real tutorial or even in-game explanation for a lot of mechanics) will smack you down repeatedly. On these occasions it is allowable to growl something unpleasant in the psychic direction of developer Size Five Games.
Far more often, it is your fault. Maybe you mistimed a jump and plummeted to your death. Maybe you panicked and ran into a mine. Maybe you opened a door a fraction too early. Maybe you stupidly dropped down past a window three rows high, and have no way to get back up.
On these occasions your only recourse is to screech your rage into the ether. Last night I myself made a sound so violently enraged I went to bed with a sore throat, and have not seen the cat in 17 hours. I’m still mad.
The Swindle is a blend of several genres, but if you’re looking for a specific categorisation I would hesitantly call it a platformer. I’m exceptionally bad at platformers; I have forgotten all the skills I developed in the 80’s and 90’s and consider the end of the character platformer era one of the best things ever to happen to games. I don’t Mario. I don’t Spelunky. I barely Braided. I didn’t Mark of the Ninja. I couldn’t even Thomas Was Alone.
And yet I find The Swindle a joy to play – now that I’m over the clunky, fiddly stage. It took me quite a while to get the hang of its unusual rhythms, and I’m still not entirely sure why sometimes a desperate leap will result in a wall cling and other times it will not, but after an hour or so I was gracefully leaping across rooftops and bouncing back and forth between walls at a pace I would never have expected from a stealth game.
Stealth is the other primary genre, and it’s an interesting blend of multiple styles. You start off contending with simple sight lines, but difficulty escalates rapidly, throwing in all sorts of gadgets and enemy types, including some that pick up on audio cues, forcing you to slow down and sneak.
Like all the best stealth games, The Swindle challenges your strategic abilities as well as your physical reflexes, and rewards creativity. Your expanding toolbox of tricks keeps unlocking new and more powerful tactics, but the random generator never stops throwing new scenarios at you, either, so it takes a long, long time to feel like you’ve outgrown the difficulty.
You choose your own difficulty, in fact, and although there is some gating in that you need to earn enough to unlock each new tier and purchase the tools you’ll need to be successful, there’s an interesting meta-game in the act of picking a difficulty level. The ultimate goal of the game is to reach the most difficult mission, but you only have 100 days in which to achieve this, which means you need to hustle. Weighing up the risk of failure with the greatly increased rewards of harder missions is a skill in itself.
The balance of risk and reward permeates almost every aspect of gameplay, and in that The Swindle captures the feeling of a heist perhaps more effectively than any other game I’ve played. I was frequently on the edge of my seat, dancing one step ahead of the fuzz, as I pushed on to grab that one last haul when I really ought to have hightailed it.
The way the camera zooms in while your character is hacking really adds to this tension, as does the simply wonderful music. I ended up turning the volume down and putting on a TV show just to keep myself calm as I played, which while effective is something of a tragedy given how great the soundtrack is. The sound in general is very good, actually – from the ceramic clanks of sliding tiles to the drumming of rain, and Big Ben’s real-time chimes.
I’ve very dutifully described some of the gameplay I found most interesting in The Swindle, so that you’re in a position to say something like “cor, that sounds a bit of alright then” or regional equivalent. But what I really wanted to do for this feature was just list all the swear words I said while playing. I sat down for an extra hour and tried to make a note every time I flew into a blind rage.
I couldn’t, though (and even with our irreverent approach that’s probably for the best, as the air was turning a serious shade of blue around my gaming desk), because every time I died I forgot all about my plan and just hammered the “another heist” button as soon as I’d finished slamming my hand down on the desk and howling obscenities.
I really like games that provoke an emotional response in me. I like Journey because it fills me with hope and wonder. I like Mass Effect because it makes me feel triumphant and heroic. I like Destiny because I am overjoyed when I shoot something in the face. I like Life is Strange because it reduces me to solid minutes of angry ugly crying.
I like The Swindle because it makes me so mad I sometimes have to put my hands over my mouth and scream and scream and scream – before picking up the control pad for “just one more try”. I suspect I will never actually “win” The Swindle but I am going down fighting.
In conclusion: I am very excited to have hit my word count so that I can go and play some more now. Bye.
The Swindle is out now on Mac, PC, PlayStation 3, PS4 and Vita. It’s also coming to Wii U and Xbox One. It’s on sale during launch week.