The Swapper has been available to download on Steam for sometime, yet we console only types are often left wondering what delights remain out there in the far reaches of cyberspace. Lucky for us Playstation, with the help of Curve Studios, managed to entice Facepalm Games’ atmospheric, puzzle driven indie title to the Playstation Network. With the winds certainly moving in favour of inventive indie games as opposed to the standard triple A blockbuster, could The Swapper stand out in this wave of independent titles?
Quite simply, The Swapper is Majestic, and eerily so.
From the very opening sequence I was hooked. A space shuttle hurtles toward an abandoned space station. Upon crashing you emerge from the cockpit in your space suit surrounded by darkness. A real sense of isolation eclipses you as you slowly make your way to the space station with nothing but small light emanating from your space helmet.
Once you enter the space station the sense of trepidation never really subsides. The ominous atmosphere coupled with little explanation or narrative leaves you constantly questioning your own safety. The old school claymation animation also brings the game to life, making the Swapper almost palpable yet creepily barren. Anyone who has seen John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ or the first ‘Alien’ movie as the camera pans the halls, will understand what I mean.
The Swapper doesn’t pander to its audience. The games narrative, whilst opaque, still manages to drive the gamer forward. Besides the odd explanation of which button to press to activate a particular switch, you are pretty much left to your own devices. It is clear that our unnamed character must escape the space station and also discover what happened to the previous crew.
Along the way you will encounter ‘the watchers,’ inanimate rocks that are somehow able to communicate with you telepathically and their involvement is unclear at first. Terminals dotted around the space station, that have detailed accounts from the scientists living on board, also leave clues to the events leading up to their disappearance. But it is The Swapper’s marrying of story telling and gameplay that truly defines it.
Upon entering the space station you will encounter an alien piece of technology known as ‘The Swapper” or cloning gun. This enables you to clone yourself up to 5 times. Upon holding down L1 a beam projects from your gun. You are then able to strategically place your carbon copy within the beams reach. Now this is where things can get disorientating. If you move left all the clones move left. If you move right all the clones move right. You get the idea.
Puzzles start off simple. If you can’t reach the ledge above that has a pressure pad for you to stand on and activate, you just need to project your clone onto the platform above. Your copy can then activate the pad on your behalf. Eventually your gun can be upgraded allowing you to chose which clone you are primarily in charge of, as you are able to leap from body to body.
To escape the space station you must use your new found piece of alien technology and accumulate enough orbs to power many of the dead transporters scattered around. These transporters take you to areas of the ship that were previously unreachable. The level design is clearly inspired by games such as Metroid or Castlevania, in were players have to gain access to various rooms in order to proceed. A map can be called upon at the press of a button to help reveal unexplored areas, yet there is no clear indication of which route is the correct one and gamers will often find themselves back tracking in order to progress forward.
But things aren’t that easy even with your cloning gun. Several different coloured lights fill the various rooms within the space station and each light has a particular effect on your gun. Blue lights prevent you from positioning a clone within its beam. Red lights mean you can’t jump or swap to another body and purple lights, well, nothing works.
As the game progresses the challenges become much more intricate. You will often find yourself stumped and infuriated by certain puzzles that seem impossible, and with no hints to hand you can now fully appreciate why I said this game doesn’t pander to its audience. For example I encountered a room with a large arrow pointing up. My beam was too short for me to place a clone at the top. How was I to get up there?
As I said, with little explanation to the puzzles, the game relies heavily on trial and error. To my amazement something that was previously unknown to me, but discovered in my frustration, is that the swapper gun slows down time. I was able to project one of my clones half way towards the precipice and jump into his body. I quickly then had to change trajectory and position an addition clone on the platform and jump to his body. This opened up a world of possibilities. I knew from that one trivial moment that this would be a game unlike any other.
Even when you doubt that the game could possibly offer up any new challenges, something new gets thrown into the mix. As we are on a space station, gravity becomes an essential part. Launch pads flip you up upside down onto the ceiling, but this means that anyone you clone is also upside down. You have to carefully plan which clones will be the right way up and which will be upside down to unlock the puzzle. And believe me this is just the beginning to the ideas found within The Swapper, but I won’t spoil them for you.
This may first appear to be a quirky puzzler but Facepalm’s game subtly brings the morality of life into question. As you are completely on your own, you soon feel a touch safer knowing there are several, well, you’s around you. You are a group, a team. But the constant switching, swapping and allowing one of your clones to be sacrificed for your own survival makes you question, which one is the real you? Every time one of my clones went over the edge and plummeted to his death I heard his bones crunch. I felt guilty. Was that me who died? Every time I switched to one clone to leave the others behind, I questioned if that was really me going forward in the dark space station or was I lost back there somewhere wandering its many corridors?
The idea of the Swapper is simple yet the execution is complex. Every puzzle is ingenious. The Swapper is one of the few games that balances indie style puzzles with wonderful narrative. It takes its narrative from other classic titles such as Another World, Ico, Limbo and The Journey yet more than holds its own against these prestigious titles. This game is pure and heart felt. A true emotional journey.
The Swapper is not just the pinnacle of indie games, it is a definite moment in gaming history and definitely one of the best and most enjoyable games I have ever played.