Bringing up the ethical dilemmas in the midst of a puzzle/platforming game is a tough accomplishment, but The Swapper does so in a manner that is unforgettable in its execution. A small group of Finnish independent developers, ironically named Facepalm Games, have created an experience that is on par with the recent side-scrolling classics that have boomed throughout the indie scene over the past few years, such as Super Meat Boy, Braid, and Limbo. The game also evokes a sense of exploration and re-exploration that reminds us of Castlevania and Metroid. So keep a clone handy and be ready to have your brain swapped, because today, we review The Swapper.
What differentiates The Swapper from its contemporaries is its unique, clay-based graphics, atmosphere, story, and an innovative gaming-technique that seems to be influenced by the likes of Christopher Nolan's illusion-centric film, The Prestige, and the Naruto anime series. Instead of turning back time, using wall-jumps, or any of the like, The Swapper allows players to instantly spawn a clone. The ramifications of insta-cloning are the mainstay of both The Swapper's unique puzzle mechanics and its fantastic way of storytelling.
The clones of The Swapper are Lemming-like in their ability to blindly follow the movements of the character. Using your cursor for a point of reference, you are able to make a clone of yourself within a specific range that will spawn in the air and land on wherever you hover the target/silhouette of the cloning gun. The clone blindly follows your character's actions. For example, if you spawn a clone on a platform above you and start moving your character right, your clone will run along that upper platform in the same direction.
The Theseus, the space station on which the action takes place, has been locked up to the point that only a player with the Swapper gun would be able to progress through it. In order to collect the orbs that unlock the various areas of the ship, players will find themselves solving ingenious and creative puzzles that require a level of thinking outside of the box. Facepalm Games' name truly makes sense when you complete of some of the harder puzzles that turn out to be a lot simpler than they were at first glance.
Not only are are you able to spawn up to four clones in order to progress through the game, but mind-swapping with the clones must occur to get through most of the game's traps and puzzles. You can also slow down time as near-death experiences occur, resulting in the player spawning a clone and swapping consciousnesses with it as they survive the experience by the skin of their teeth. Nothing is as exhilarating as falling into a pit, watching time slow down in a Max Payne-esque manner, shooting out a clone into safety, and switching minds with that clone at the last second.
The graphics in this game are what attract players to it at first glance, but most of this game was crafted BY HAND. The models, objects in the foreground and background, platforms, and almost everything you see in the game, except for the lights, were created from clay using household objects. Everything is scaled to the point of believability. When you compare your character's size to the gigantic map and think about the game in retrospect, you will marvel in how minuscule you are in comparison to everything you explore. This leads to a truly unique aesthetic that should bring out the explorer in most gamers.
The Swapper should not be described in the videogame-related terms of claymation, bits, or pixels, but of simple, unparalleled beauty. To think that a game of this size and magnitude was created using handcrafted parts, then scanned into the game as pieces of a canvas, reminds us that videogames are not only a form of entertainment, but also a form of art. With the incorporation of the various light sources affecting the cloning mechanics, this game looks nothing short of magnificent and shows that you do not need an office building full of developers in order to create something beautiful.
The sound effects and music reflect the desolation of the Theseus. Much of the music is subtle, quiet, hollow, and the sound effects (ranging from footsteps, clone-platoon footsteps, machinery, and the clone-gun), resonate throughout the derelict station. We haven't encountered a space station so awe-inspiring simply due to its atmosphere and tone since we first fought Necromorphs on the Ishimura in the first Dead Space title (or perhaps the 2001 and Alien films). The music and sound reflect the solitude which envelopes you that no amount of clones could try and lessen.
What furthers The Swapper into the realm of greatness is not just its ingenuity, graphics, atmosphere, controls, superb ambient sound effects, or its gameplay, but its story. Players are presented with bits and pieces of the story by means of the various digital logs scattered throughout the Theseus station. Hinted at are the horrible outcomes of what happened to the previous inhabitants, and even more shocking are the adverse effects of using the Swapper gun. After the painful-looking deaths of what seem to be thousands of clones by the end of the game, players may start to question, "What effect does this really have on my character?" The inner-thoughts of the protagonist not only hint at it, but reflect a deterioration of one's memory and mental sanity, which is described as one of the negative effects of constantly cloning and swapping.
The pacing in The Swapper greatly fortifies its fun-factor: as you explore more parts of the Theseus, the game throws a monkey wrench into the tried-and-true ways of progression. The anti-gravity plates and zero-gravity sections of the game are, again, reminiscent of Dead Space, but also innovative in how they completely change the game's rather simple, but efficient, controls. There is one section where you must shoot your mind-swap gun dozens of times in order to use its inertia to navigate a zero-g area of the Theseus. Throughout this area, there are multiple dead crew members floating around. If you were to hit one of these corpses with the mind-swap gun, you would die; but you have to constantly fire the mind-swap gun in order to navigate it. The result is a constantly-rotating, tense and chaotic experience.
The finale reflects the ethics in using clones as stepping stones and is the fine-line in a paragon vs. renegade debate in what you have done throughout the game. Combined with the random messages sent to your character and the thoughts that randomly flash throughout the game, you will question what has happened to your soul after cloning yourself. While staying spoiler-free, we will simply say that it should be experienced, and not described. Would you stay and die? Or would you swap?
The final act of the game taunts us with philosophical questions, and since it is appropriate, we will remind you of it before you start playing this extravagant, uncanny experience. "What is dying? A disconnection? The absence of knowledge? What is it for? To avoid something worse? For a short time, at least." The only thing that holds this game back from a perfect score is its relatively short length, which oddly reflects the lifespan of The Swapper's clones.
This review is based on a retail copy of The Swapper for PC.