In recent times, rouge-likes, games which base their appeal on increasing player-ability rather than provision of in-game skills and tools have really gained on popularity. Titles such as The Rogue Legacy, The Binding of Isaac, and Spelunky are the forefathers of this contemporary phenomenon, and have provided other indie developers with foundation which allows them to continue the trend. And Size Five Games led by Dan Marshall, made sure to make the best use of the groundwork created by Edmund McMillen and Cellar Door games, when creating The Swindle.
In its core The Swindle is a simple two dimensional platformer which has you traverse numerous, procedurally generated generated levels in search of funds, which are required to take on the titular ‘Swindle’. However, each and every level is filled with countless steam-punk contraptions, bombs, robots, and cameras which are there to impede your progress. Initially you’ll only be allowed to doge the cameras and bash the guards with the trusty truncheon which is always at your side. And it is absolutely fine if you look at it from neutral perspective, however, game introduces the protagonist or rather protagonists, as master thieves. And it is rather peculiar to play with a master thief who is incapable of unlocking a simple lock, or simply lacks the ability to open a window without smashing through it with a baton. And this is most prominent within the early stages of the game, as procedural generation is not always up to scratch. It can leave you stuck at a bottom of a hole with no way out due to lack of double jump, which can only be unlocked through the ‘mother-ship’ or can lock of terminals behind walls making them completely unreachable.
Beside the previously mentioned unlock mechanic which at times requires you to spend ridiculous amounts of money in order to unlock abilities which may not always be as good as they sound, The Swindle also features a swindler replacement mechanic. If you ever get into trouble and end up being cornered by property security and police, which is called to the site when alarm is triggered, you’ll surely fall and the operative which you’ve been using for the outright swindling will be terminated. And when the pushes comes to shove, you’ll have to continue your quest for the ultimate swindle with another operative. And this mechanic shares a lot of similarities with the one featured within the previously mentioned Rogue Legacy, as each and every new personnel addition to your campaign of thievery will be randomly generated both in name and appearance. But the mechanic itself doesn’t make much sense when applied to The Swindle. Seconds after you turn the game on, you’re informed that you are the master swindler, and that YOU need to protect your profession by stealing automated security system which Scotland Yard will introduce in no less than 100 days. But then, you can play through the 100 days with 100 different operatives, and change in the swindling personnel is not explained at any point in time, which made me question both my sanity and game’s coherence.
The incoherent character replacement mechanic is not the only thing that affects the reception of the title, as The Swindle suffers much more from its plot ambiguity. On one hand The Swindle comes across as a game that is serious in its nature. It exposes in-game London’s Scotland Yard as an oppressive and controlling force which wants to gain control over the entire city to both minimize criminality and control its vast populous. And game’s plot is based around you stealing the final piece of the puzzle to prevent Scotland Yard from amassing complete control over the city. But on the other hand, design of the game and its artistic side suggest something completely dissimilar. While you’re not fighting Scotland Yard on the streets of 19th century, steam-punk London, you’re either purchasing upgrades from a database located within an air-ship which hovers gently above London’s rooftops, or you’re traveling between different locations with the use of a rocket powered pod which just crashes into the ground meters away from your chosen heist location. And this ultimately makes the game seem incoherent and therefore it loses its appeal within couple of hours, as the serious story which it tries to portray gets lost quickly between the numerous bugs, irrational rocket travel, and controls which are imprecise and unfit for its purpose.
It is fitting to conclude by elaborating on controls as such are the most important part of any rogue-like game. And unfortunately when it comes to The Swindle, controls seem to be one of its weaker sides. In game such as this controls need to be on point, as a single pixel can decide on the life and death of the on-screen character. However, The Swindle’s controls does not only feel imprecise, they’re also unpredictable. Jumping can sometimes allow you to travel the distance of two blocks to land right behind enemy’s back in position for a deadly strike. However, sometimes it pushes forwards by distance of three blocks and ultimately has you land right on the enemy resulting in an alarm being turned on, and sometimes even death. And this arguably is the final nail in the coffin of a game that held so much promise, but ultimately has fallen on every single hurdle, and will most likely get lost in the abundance on indie games coming in later this year.
The Swindle features on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, PC, Xbox One, and Xbox 360. It was reviewed on PlayStation 4, cross-buy and cross-save functionality could not be tested due to review copy limitations.