Review: The Swapper

TheSwapper

Rarely do I find myself questioning the effects of a game after I have played something. The premise of Facepalm Games’ The Swapper is fairly simple: Solve environmental puzzles by using an experimental gun which makes clones of yourself. Throughout the game, a debate is uncovered questioning whether or not a soul is unique to one body, and if so what happens to the soul when a clone of the body is made? Adding further fuel to the debate is the notion of what happens to the soul if a clone (or in some cases the original) is discarded (i.e. killed by falling too far, or squished by stone pillars) yet traversal through the puzzle-filled story continues? Part of me feels that the device used to make clones did a number on me, because after I finished the game I felt cold, distant and partially uncaring about the 8 hours or so I spent playing The Swapper.

The Swapper is an absolutely stunning visual masterpiece. Still screenshots don’t do the art style justice. Clay models were captured to provide the physical movement of the main character (and his clones) controlled throughout the game. Mix the stop motion clay figure movements with sparse real lighting in addition to harsh camera filters, and the world comes to life like nothing I’ve ever seen in a video game. Smart use of depth of focus as well as extreme camera movements pulling out from the models adds a sense of scale that builds on the atmosphere of desolation and despair that unfolds as the game progresses. Players will be completely gobsmacked by how visually moving the dark clay-animation world is. The music also is superb and adds yet another rich layer to the experience.

Of course any game is only as good as its mechanic elements and The Swapper gradually ramps up the complexity while staying true to the core rules. Right clicking on the mouse creates a clone, up to a total of four at any given time. Left clicking allows possession of a clone to take place. Moving the character moves all clones at the same time and in the same direction. Light also plays a role in the mechanic. Red light prevents possession, but allows clones to be created (in the space that red light shines in). Conversely, blue light allows for clones to be possessed, but not to be created. Pinkish, purple light acts like a combo of red and blue and disallows both actions. Gravity factors into the equation as well, but traversal through tall open spaces is easily accomplished by creating a clone up in the air and possessing it before it falls to the ground. Quick, successive clone/possession hops up (or down) allow for maneuvering without fear of death. One final thing to mention, is that when the right mouse is held down to create a clone, time slows to a crawl which allows for precise placement.

Mastering the clone mechanic is fairly simple. Applying the mechanic to every increasingly difficult puzzle is where the fun comes in. Pressure plates on the floor may open a doorway, or turn off a colored light, allowing you to create a clone in an otherwise impossible to reach location. When the plates appear on both the floor and ceiling (and inside colored light), things get really intense. Fortunately there is no time mechanic where a puzzle has to be solved before the clock runs out, because more often than not, the method for solving a puzzle may take more than a few attempts to completely master.

So how are all of the puzzles tied together? The character you control starts the game with the idea of arriving at a derelict space ship as part of a rescue mission. Being so deep into space, all of the ship’s crew is dead by the time help arrives. Save for one person who has managed to avoid death from The Watcher, a collective of brain-like rock which communicates telepathically. In order to save the last survivor and escape from the ship, glowing orbs must be collected to unlock various doors throughout the ship. Collecting the orbs requires solving various puzzles by using the Swapper gun to create and possess clones.

Throughout the derelict ship, computer logs can be found which provide journal entries explaining the demise of the crew. Additionally, pieces of the Watcher are also hidden throughout the ship. When walking past a piece of the Watcher, the screen loses focus from the environment and instead highlights a telepathic message. The combination of ship logs and telepathic messages offers a profound message rarely found in video games, but clearly conveys a deep connection to the tradition of science fiction storytelling. As I mentioned earlier, a debate rages through the story (if you can find all of the computer logs and Watcher rocks) asking whether or not a soul is tied solely to one body. Yet examples of crew members who have cloned themselves have no idea that they are in fact clones. Further analysis would seem to show that something is lost each time a clone is made, but the benefits of the clones outweighs the loss.

There are 124 orbs to collect in order to finish the game. The last 50 or so are a downright bitch to collect. I like to think that I’m a smart guy and can figure out puzzles, but maybe I spent so much time making clones of myself that I lost part of my smarts. Or, maybe I’m just a cynic, or rather an existential snob, because by the end I had a hard time identifying with the story and thus felt completely passionless after the last puzzle was solved. (Although I will admit there is a pretty mind blowing reveal late in the game.)

Taken in parts, The Swapper is amazing. Put together as a whole, I find myself wondering how The Swapper managed to suck me in yet left me feeling somewhat empty and devoid of any sense of accomplishment. Overall, fans of thought provoking science fiction will love The Swapper, as will any gamer with an appreciation for solid, challenging puzzle mechanics. 

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Stunning art style
+ Haunting music
+ Puzzle mechanic is easy to learn yet hard to master
+ Thought provoking story

Cons:
– Challenging puzzles by the end offer more frustration than fun
– Key story moments are told through computer logs (which can be missed)
– Some puzzle solutions can feel very twitchy

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Facepalm Games
Developer: Facepalm Games
Release Date: 5/30/2013
Genre: Puzzle Platformer
ESRB Rating: N/A
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by developer

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.