Review: The Unfinished Swan

TheUnfinishedSwan

In an era of gaming where most games feel like iterative copies of the hottest blockbuster production from the previous year, finding a unique title that takes a new concept and fleshes it out beyond the aspirations of a tech demo is refreshing.  Giant Sparrow has done just that with The Unfinished Swan. Based on the concept of splashing black paint drops around an all-white game space to reveal objects and depth to the environment, The Unfinished Swan weaves a tale of self discovery through a world filled with wonder and terror.

When I first learned of The Unfinished Swan I was told that the game would melt my mind.  That statement wasn’t too far off.  The game builds on the idea of simply flinging black paint around an all-white space to reveal a world built by a King who desired absolute perfection.  As the game unfolds, the King realizes that such perfection is hard to come by.  Constantly building and discarding mazes or castles, or ordering his subjects to do something which often ended in subtle or outright rebellion, the King seemed to never find happiness.

The Unfinished Swan explores emotions of joy, fear, loneliness and wonder in a way that I can honestly say I have never encountered before in a video game.  There is something satisfying about tossing black paint and watching it splatter on a wall to reveal what’s behind the blank white curtain.  Of course, splattering too much causes the world to become just as impossible to walk through as it is without any paint.  A delicate balance of paint to help discover where to go next while not completely covering up the world is a direct correlation to what the King in the story seemingly was never able to achieve.

While visual cues are important to the game, sound plays an equally vital role.  Early on in the game a pond is discovered.  Frogs and crickets chirp and when paint is tossed to the water an occasional fish will leap up to get the splash.  All is nice and calm in this white landscape slowly revealing itself as a lovely natural relaxing spot,  until a low guttural roar echoes out from the unknown.  Immediately I realized that this game was not quite right.  Something in this land of make believe was not the same as the one Mister Rogers helped me create in my own imagination as a kid.  I wanted to see what could create that noise.  What events led the King to allow something so scary into his kingdom.

Progressing through the world, following yellow webbed tracks of a swan, the game leads players through a once-beautiful kingdom.  Shifts in perspective and reality are handled with great effect as more is learned about the King. Not satisfied with simply splattering black paint to help reveal a path, later on the game switches out that mechanic with flinging water.  While that may not seem like much of a change, water is used quite differently than paint, such as to grow vines which are used to climb up to new areas of the castle to further explore and continue the story.

Following the narrative path soon leads the game from flinging black paint and water in a white landscape to a truly scary pitch black night.  Most people these days live in a city where light pollution at night keeps the sky from completely being pitch black.  Spending any nights camping in the wild can truly screw with your sense of vision and force your other senses to work overtime.  Sound in a pitch black environment can help calm nerves or exacerbate jitters.  Any snap of a branch or chirp from a cricket, or hoot from an owl is magnified by our brains trying to place where that sound is coming from. Hearing most of those noises is expected while spending time in the woods at night. [Possible Spoiler Ahead] But what if a distant light source must be traveled to while piercing, glowing red eyes stare from the darkness as you near the light? Moving closer to the light, you can hear a slathering, chittering noise coming from an unseen mouth below those angry glowing red eyes.  Get too close to those eyes without igniting the light source and suddenly a red claw streaks across your vision and you hear a yelp of pain coming from within.  Hot damn the game delivers spooks and chills like no other game I’ve played! [End Spoiler]

The Unfinished Swan does a fantastic job of subtly building up that mental canvas by first allowing shapes to take form with a black splotch of paint tossed here and there.  Oh look, a picket fence.  A dinning room table and chairs.  A stone bridge arching over a pond with–wait, what just made that horrible noise.  The mind paints a graphic horror better than anything an artist could.  Knowing that the world of The Unfinished Swan has such horrible unseen creatures while wondering about in the daylight magnifies whatever horrors your mind has created when confronted with them at night, in the dark, with no way to defend yourself other than finding a light source.

Eventually the game introduces another new mechanic which allows objects to be built by throwing a ball of sorts to begin one corner of the object.  Move the viewpoint one way or the other to complete the other side of the object and then a beam is projected out which will complete and form the object once a third ball is thrown to complete how deep the object needs to be.  Building platforms in this portion of the game was probably my least favorite part.  The construction mechanic is solid, but the overall art style in this section feels out of place from the rest of the game. The narrative development from this section is important to the overall story, but the game feels like it switches from a magical mystery to a level building exercise from LittleBigPlanet, and at least to me diminishes the pace established up to that point in time.

Both PlayStation Move and traditional play with a DualShock 3 are supported, equally effective control options. Controlling movement with the Move alone is a bit weird, but once you pair the Move with a Navigation controller movement is as natural as playing with a DualShock. Using the Move, accuracy of throwing paint or water is a bit better than trying to accomplish the same task with the aiming cursor used in the DualShock scheme, but by no means will you feel at a disadvantage if you don’t own a Move or simply choose to play without motion control.

Throughout each level are floating balloons which, once collected, unlock fun little toys to play around with, such as a hose which fires paint or water in a large, fast stream.  By collecting all balloons, you can also unlock the original tech demo that sparked the game’s creation.  Playing through that and comparing it to the full game, I’m thrilled that Giant Sparrow got the opportunity to take the game above and beyond mere proof of concept, and you should be too. The Unfinished Swan, backed by a truly mind melting visual experience, sound that amplifies what is and isn’t seen, and a thought provoking narrative, defies modern convention for a change and takes a risk on a fresh, intriguing idea rather than retreading familiar gameplay mechanics. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Fantastic use of sound
+ Wonderful visuals
+ Thought provoking narrative
+ Unlockable toys for a second playthrough
+ Supports the Move, Navigation controller and DualShock 3

Cons:
– Fairly short
– Block building mechanic doesn’t quite fit with the overall visual theme

Game Info:
Platform: PS3 via PSN
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Giant Sparrow
Release Date: 10/23/2012
Genre: Adventure
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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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.