The Swindle – PC
Developer: Size Five Games
Publisher: Size Five Games
Release Date: July 28th, 2015
Nerd Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Over the history of video games, human kind has struggled at each new paradigm shift, trying desperately to craft fun games that imitate various things. It was only a handful of decades ago that platforming games didn’t even have jumping in them, and the concept of gaming in a 3-dimensional space alone has dogged us these many years as we work to perfect it.
Along the way, many different game types and genres have cropped up, carving their own niche in the video gaming pantheon: platformers, run-and-guns, RPGs, first-person shooters, and simulation games, all becoming slowly more distinguished as more and more genres and sub-genres emerge and we struggle to perfect them.
One genre, in particular, has been in dire need of perfection: the heist genre. The heist genre, pioneered by titles such as Bonanza Bros., pits the player against seemingly insurmountable odds as they break into banks, casinos, and mansions in order to make a getaway with the cash as quickly and as efficiently as possible, letting the player live out their fantasies as a master thief.
Many have tried. Some better than others, but most all have failed. Thief, Payday, Kane and Lynch, Gran Theft Auto V, Battlefield Hardline, even the aptly named The Heist. These games all try, in their own way, to recreate that special feeling that occurs when the player can, through a combination of skill and preparation, pull off a fantastic feat of crime.
However, many of these games fall shy of the mark, often focusing on conflicting elements that distract from that true heist feeling. No matter the reason, recreating that true heist feeling has proved difficult, to say the least.
Enter: The Swindle. A self-described “cyberpunk caper” that posits the end of thievery everywhere if the player is unable to stop the activation of an anti-theft device known as the Devil’s Basilisk. It is up to the player to begin infiltrating homes, factories, casinos, and more in order to round up huge amounts of cash, purchasing new tools and abilities in order to finally break into the high security facility and steal the Devil’s Basilisk. Fast-paced, strategic stealth action awaits the player within this game, providing opportunity upon opportunity for the player to pull off great and rewarding heists.
The core gameplay of The Swindle centers largely around stealth. Using doors, wall sliding techniques, and their handy baton, the player sneaks around the maze-like levels, avoiding and decommissioning the robots and security systems that stand between them and the promise of loot. This includes security cameras, mines, locked doors, and flying drones, all blocking the unskilled player like a wall. The basic mechanics are a little hard to get used to at first, leading to quite a few blunders for anyone’s first playthrough, but they can be mastered over time, leading to some really rewarding skill-based gameplay.
There are a significant amount of usable items and skills available over the course of The Swindle as the challenge ramps up. This includes tools like bombs, remote detonators, invisibility cloaks, and more that the player is encouraged to play around with to help facilitate their efforts. This leads to even more complexity as the player is forced to decide which tools will best help them in a given situation, selectively meting out their limited inventory over the course of a heist in order to maximize their profit. Some items can be used for a variety of purposes, offering quite a few opportunities for meaningful decision making on the part of the player.
These items and abilities, in turn, lead into some RPG-based elements. As the player makes their way ever closer towards the Devil’s Basilisk, they can use their cash to purchase these new abilities, items, and upgrades in whichever order they see fit, in much the same way as those achievement-based flash games like Earn to Die or Into Space. Due to the limited scope and number of these upgrades, I would be extremely reluctant to call The Swindle a true RPG, but the seeds are there.
One of the reasons–and perhaps the most important reason–that The Swindle is able to create the rush of pulling off a successful heist is through its level design. The player is given 100 days or “rounds” to build their arsenal in order to steal the Devil’s Basilisk, so that means there must be a lot of levels, right? Absolutely correct. However, instead of designing 100 individual levels, the designers set up an algorithm that will procedurally generate an infinite amount of levels, riding the wave of indie games’ trend toward Rogue-like elements.
This means that no two heists will feel the same, preventing players from learning levels and getting complacent. As a thief, you are kept on your toes, constantly relying on your body of skill, experience, and resources in new and sometimes surprising ways. The sheer variation in level types and one-off oddities produced within the mind of The Swindle is extremely impressive. Long corridors, open warehouse spaces, chimney-like tunnels, and super-treacherous hellpits await the player within the walls of each new target, offering a high degree of replayability.
The graphics are pretty well-done. Drawing inspiration from steampunk and cyberpunk aesthetics, The Swindle takes place in some sort of fictional past where large steam ships and analog computers perform more advanced functions than our technology of today. This is reflected in the graphics, the characters and environments characterized by a diminutive toy-like appearance, armed with clunky gadgets. Things look a little dark and somber at first, but it fits well with the midnight caper theme. Everything in this game is stylized to the max, down to the candles and torches that glow from the walls.
Apart from the visuals, the audio does its own part to build a better atmosphere. At the beginning of each new stage, an energetic little tune punctuated by the click-clacking of a grandfather clock will begin playing. This soothing soundtrack reflects the conflict within the player, balancing their greed for more cash with a thoughtful and careful approach to ensure that they survive the heist. The music will even pick up in tempo and shift to an electronic version when the player is discovered, emphasizing their need to get out of there as quickly as possible. All in all, the music and sound effects are well-produced and hearing them over and over again doesn’t get stale.
Sadly enough, as much as I would love to keep gushing about it, The Swindle is not perfect. The most grievous offender, by far, would be the mechanics. This isn’t to say that the mechanics are inherently bad, but they can feel a little…wonky at times. I can’t even begin to describe how many times I died for completely bullshit reasons that had nothing to do with my own ability, often because the platforming mechanics would do some weird shit I wasn’t prepared for, or because a bot suddenly saw me through a wall, or the game glitched out and didn’t show me which explosive I was detonating (it was the one right next to me).
When your game is killing the player because they have yet to understand the full implications of the game mechanics, that’s fine. That’s what gaming is usually about. When your game is killing the player because they were unable to predict an anomalous glitch, that’s a bit of a problem, and should be avoided as much as possible. The Swindle’s game mechanics definitely could have used another layer or two of polish to really tighten things up, and it’s extremely disappointing that these issues have made their way into the final game. As it is, I often find myself altering my play style to cope for glitches and oddities that I’ve experienced once or twice in the past, which is definitely not ideal. I fully appreciate that this game was made by a small team, but a spade’s a spade.
The Swindle is a highly impressive stealth-platformer that weaves in Rogue-like and RPG elements to capture the essence of pulling off fantastic heists time and again. The sneaking and wall-sliding mechanics make this game feel uniquely its own, building a pace that encourages the player to take risks while tempering recklessness with a somewhat punishing difficulty. The items and upgrades available throughout the course of the game lead into some highly complex decision making on the part of the player, as they struggle to use their resources as efficiently as possible in order to maximize profit. The Swindle is highly skill-based, rewarding the practiced player who can make short and efficient work of its levels, capturing that rush that comes with a true heist experience. The occasional glitchiness and unscripted nature of some experiences will have a lot of players yelling “bullshit!” from time to time, but therein lies part of The Swindle’s magic, offering untold secrets and hair-raising experiences around every corner. I really, really love this game and have become fairly addicted. I would recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of the platformer and heist genres.
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