When you can’t cheat the game, you’d best find a means to cheat the players.
“The following is a contributor post by the Ink-Stained Mage.”
When I was in middle school, my dad took me to see the remake of The Italian Job, the one with Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron. I was hooked right then and there. The swagger, the careful planning, the hyper-competent people taking money from people who deserve it and the sheer cleverness of it all. I love a good heist story. I’ve read books, seen movies, I’ve played games.
But I’ve never played anything quite like The Swindle.
It’s a steampunk game where you and your limitless band of procedurally generated thieves explore dozens of procedurally generated locales in order to rob them blind. You do this to make money to upgrade your skills and abilities, so that you can take on one final all-important heist at the end of the game.
Full disclosure: I am rubbish at The Swindle. But here’s the thing. I…can’t…stop…playing…it. For all its faults, and it has many, this game keeps pulling me back in for one more score. And now I understand much better why Donald Sutherland can’t walk away from the game in The Italian Job.
So as you read the review below, you’ll read a lot about where the game went wrong, or needs polish, or is downright bad in some sections. But I’m still playing. Dying for a few patches to the game sure, but man does The Swindle capture the rush, frustration, and ecstatic joy of second story work.
Here we go.
I love the art of this game. The style, the feel, the atmosphere, it’s great. But there’s too much of it. In early levels, where threats are fewer and further between, it’s great. It’s cartoony and dark and it works. The art done by artist Michael Firman is so wonderfully noir and steampunk.
But then the procedural generation and the way the difficulty is handled in later levels muddles the whole thing up.
See, later levels don’t just introduce harder elements. They introduce MORE of them. And since rooms are only ever so big, the frankly absurd amount of moving parts and mines and spikes that appear turn a beautiful picture into something that looks like too much paint on a canvas. Incidentally, this makes it incredibly easy to accidentally walk over a mine, or an electrical trap. Which means instant death.
There’s very little indication of whether or not an enemy is actually firing on you as well. A lot of the time you’ll just quickly drop into something’s sight and get out just fine. Other times, you get auto-death. The art is beautiful, but it isn’t practical. It gets in the way of the gameplay. And that’s a big enough sin that being gorgeous can’t overcome it.
A perfect night for thieving.
Oh man this soundtrack. Tobey Evans worked wonders with this thing. And then he did it a second time. For every situation, for every level, for every variation of scenario in the game, there is a song. A mood. A feeling. And then there’s also a second version of all of those songs for when the alarm is going that is sped up or jarring or meant to make you feel stress. 50 tracks for a handful of levels means the music never gets tired.
And oh does that soundtrack give you stress. Or excite you. Or make you feel like a superb sleuth. There’s something for every occasion. The full soundtrack can be heard here if you want to take a listen. Compare and contrast some of the tracks to see the difference.
Most of the original tracks are orchestral pieces. Full of bold and vibrant strings and piano, exciting. And then you trigger an alarm and the synth goes wild. The audio is a crucial part of what makes The Swindle work as a game. And it’s a very thorough soundtrack.
Listen to this and tell me you aren’t hyped to steal things.
I’m weighing the mechanics and execution of the game here with the feel it creates. Because The Swindle absolutely creates the tension and thrill and high-stakes feel of a heist. I mean, I assume. I’ve never stolen tens of thousands in cash while bashing a robot’s head in. But the controls themselves lack precision and that’s something that, for me, a crew of master thieves absolutely has to have! Even with the upgrade for more precise movement and control of your character (Why is that a thing? Just let me control the character) I still found myself accidentally walking into mines I was trying to defuse with just the smallest press of a directional button. The jumping mechanic was similarly twitchy. Sometimes I stuck to walls, sometimes I double jumped off them or fell to my death. For a game about precision, it seemed like the controls were just too inconsistent to achieve that.
Lack of clean controls aside, when a heist goes right, this game hits all the right buttons. You slink around in the dark, through and around hallways and guarded rooms and past cameras and drones and electrical traps, and make your way out with loads of hard stolen money, nobody inside the wiser. It’s a feeling made to put a smug grin on your face.
When a heist goes wrong because of something you’ve honestly screwed up, it’s still just as fun. Because setting off an alarm doesn’t immediately end the level. No, you just have to get back to your ship. But that safe looks mighty promising… and the cops won’t be here for awhile…
When the alarm is set off, you have choices to make. Quickly. You can rabbit as quickly as possible back to your ship, or top off your loot bag just a little bit more. But later levels have more security. Walls that crash down and force you to hack or blow your way out. Spike pits. More, deadlier enemies. And Scotland Yard is always only seconds away. But escaping all that, making it back to your airship with half of the UK’s robot fleet hunting you? That is a sweet experience.
The upgrade system (Minus the head-scratching “make your character control better” upgrade) is an excellently done case of spending money to make money. You can’t hoard in The Swindle, but you need a pretty huge chunk of change to unlock the final level. Purchasing upgrades like speedier hacking, remote bugs that can be left to siphon money on multiple levels, additional jumps and bombs are absolutely necessary to completing the game. And the cost of some of the high-level upgrades means you’ll need to play in the highest and most difficult levels. Frequently, and well.
So many choices, so many things to blow up.
There really isn’t a narrative to speak of in The Swindle. You’re told at the beginning of the game that you have 100 days to steal a magic science mcguffin from Scotland Yard before it’s activated or it will create a security state effectively ending your thieving ways. But The Swindle is more about capturing a feeling, and that’s where it shines. So I’m not really bummed about not having an epic storyline in this one.
Where the narrative does manifest itself is in the mechanics and the gameplay. How deep can you get into each level before you have to pull out with your loot? How close can you come to tripping an alarm or a mine before you go to far? How steady are your hands when you’re hacking into a computer with the alarm blaring and police hot on your trail?
The story of The Swindle is told through gameplay. Which I love. But I wouldn’t have hated getting a little more meat out of the game’s narrative as you advanced through the increasingly difficult parts of the city towards your goal.
Most of what you need is imparted right here. Smashy, hacky, stealy, repeaty.
A single playthrough of The Swindle will last through dozens of heists. And that’s if you beat the game. If you don’t or even if you just want to try a different build (I’ll unlock teleportation one of these days) then you can play The Swindle pretty much forever and never have it run dry of value. Every heist is different, and there are a ton of upgrades to buy to make each run just a little bit different.
I got to the end of the game and immediately loaded it up again and ran the first 20 heists. And then two hours later I did more. And then again. For all its frustrations, The Swindle is a game that keeps drawing you back over and over again until you finally, blissfully, get it right.
Finally getting here is a rush.
You’re always walking the knife’s edge in this game. I stopped on my second playthrough to do the math and see how much money I needed per heist to get a bunch of upgrades and a shot at winning. It sounded reasonable. I was on a hot streak. And then I died and failed a lot and that was that. Start back at the beginning. Don’t do the math. Just get better.
The first two or so locations are easy enough, and you can learn the ropes. But to have any real chance of earning enough to win, you need to play in the big leagues. The later levels are somewhat more sprawling, more filled with loot, and much, much more dangerous. More enemies fly. Enemies see through doors. Drones spawn more drones. And everything is stronger. Not only do you need to be at the top of your game and fast on every level, you have to do it consistently. If you can’t build momentum, you’re doomed.
Now, most of the difficulty is in the game’s favor. It’s a fast-rising scale of challenge and requires more and more finesse and planning as you move through the levels. The problem with that is the aforementioned controls. They’re a bit indelicate. While the finesse required of you goes up dramatically, the ability to do so really doesn’t. Sure you can hone your abilities and get better and better at the game, and you will. But it’s at best a flow-breaking moment when you explode for the umpteenth time because what you thought was a small movement throws you straight into yet another mine, meaning you’ll spend several heists at least earning less because you have to rebuild your XP modifier. Tetchy controls and a bad moment can put a sour taste in your mouth ten heists down the line.
Yeah…I’ve been here a lot. Dead that is.
I’ve never played a game quite like The Swindle. Spelunky is the one that first comes to mind when you think 2-D exploring through procedurally generated levels, and games like Payday do heist pretty well, but The Swindle still feels like something new. Something that really nails the heist formula. It doesn’t focus on gunplay or exploration overly, it’s all about being sneaky, being clever, being a smug pain in the a** to anyone arrogant enough to keep thousands of dollars in cash lying around in bags on their floor and poorly encrypted computers.
It’s clever, and the tension in each successive heist builds and builds. You need more money to buy more upgrades to steal more money to unlock the finale. All the while knowing that risking too much could mean not only ending up with nothing, but losing your sweet XP modifier that can more than double the amount of money you take home each time.
It’s one part stealth game, one part RPG, one part roguelike, and a whole lot of style.
Every last screen, one of a kind.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
The Swindle is a game with a lot going for it. It’s unique, it’s a lot of fun, and it nails the tension and drama a heist game should have. But for all that, some of the art decisions and imprecise controls muddle the gameplay, and the randomly generated levels sometimes make entire areas of the map, with most of the loot, inaccessible.
I still had a lot of fun playing it, though. And after my first 100 days ended in failure, I went back in with a different strategy, made way more money… and failed again. And then I started it all over. As rough as it can sometimes be, The Swindle is a beautiful game with an excellent soundtrack that makes me long for the thrill of the score. And that’s enough to overcome some of its more frustrating foibles.
At the end of the day a review should leave you with a sense of whether or not to buy the game. I still say “yes”. You’ll have a lot of fun bashing your head against it.
Let’s go steal something expensive.
Aggregated Score: 7.4
The Ink-Stained Mage, aka Andrew Turnwall, sells books, writes microfiction upon topical request every Monday on twitter @AndrewTurnwall, and has an undying love of all things story from books to games to whatever it is his dog and cat are staring at in the corner.
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