The Swapper Review

the swapper cover

The Swapper is an interesting title because it is as derivative as it is unique. For every element it has borrowed from other games or movies, it introduces something completely fresh and new, and wraps it all up within a brilliantly subtle epistemological and ontological treatise on the nature of gaming. It is a product of an industry that uses focus groups as design tools while simultaneously boldly going where few titles, mainstream or indie, have ventured.

The major industry tropes are definitely present here, with scripted events, one-sided conversations between our mute hero (let’s call him “Jack”) and supporting characters, a platforming object collectathon, and a game world that gradually opens up, but it is all presented so smartly and beautifully that the first few hours of The Swapper are absolutely magnificent.

In those first hours, the pacing, character interactions, and technogothic-industrial architecture echo a lot of Dead Space, but this game is so moody and quiet that the silence ends up far more uncomfortably disconcerting than most of the Dead Space series. The issue with most horror is a pretty basic structural problem: horror cannot remain scary unless the antagonist is something deeply personal, playing off a fundamental elemental fear. Otherwise, it inevitably becomes a simple obstacle to overcome once the initial shock has worn off.

It’s a fine line between terror and tension, and very few games or movies are able to pull off both equally well. Terror is what happens when you see a monster for the first time. Tension is what happens the next thirty-nine times. Dead Space and Resident Evil 4 are brilliant games, but ceased to be scary once we saw all that they had to show us. Isaac and Leon could still die if we weren’t careful, but that was tension, not terror.

The Swapper very smartly avoids this pitfall (and in fact, brilliantly subverts the trope) by focusing the game on Jack and emphasizing the sense of isolation. The derelict space station is almost completely empty. The only lifeforms that Jack encounters with any regularity are sentient, telepathic brain boulders called “Watchers,” which “speak” when he passes. Since they are telepathic and have no literal voice, they actually add to the unsettling quiet of the station, which makes everything feel that much more morose.

In fact, the only real companionship throughout the game is soaked in irony. Solving puzzles and advancing through the station requires frequent use of the Swapper device, which leads to multiple copies of Jack running around at the same time. This brings us to a startling and depressing realization: you are your own company. You are sending yourself off to die every time you need to dispose of a clone. That figure you catch out of the corner of your eye is you. This realization is where The Swapper begins subverting the terror versus tension trope (hint, hint: you’re the monster), and where it introduces one of the more groundbreaking game mechanics, ever.

The gameplay shares a lot with Portal in its approaches to movement, environmental interaction, and non-linear thinking, but the cloning mechanic creates an entirely new playstyle that takes conventional platform strategy and twists it into something amazing. It encourages the player to take risks. It leads us to large chasms we cannot cross by conventional means, like walkways and elevators. Walking through a door puts us on a high ledge with one way down, and it’s a lethal fall. The game plays with gravity in a way that would make even the most hardened Super Mario Galaxy veterans scratch their heads.

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There’s a rather ingenious slow motion effect that kicks in when placing clones, too. Yet there is a morbid and disturbing truth lying beneath all of this game design magic: that clones are completely disposable, and the game seems to take a special delight in highlighting that.

Since Jack cannot jump terribly high or far, ascending large structures to reach a door at the top of the room often means placing a clone on a ledge above, then swapping to it. Simple enough, but the old Jack will be left there, to be erased from existence once the new Jack-Prime leaves that room. Jack creates clones in escapeless pits just so they can activate a pressure switch at the bottom. Throughout the facility, there are beams of extremely bright light that disintegrate any clones in that room. If Jack-Prime comes into contact with any clones, those clones vanish in a puff of smoke. There are gigantic rooms that force Jack to create and swap in mid-air, making lovely use of the slow-mo effect, but as Jack leaps from clone to clone, the old ones are left to fall to their doom in a sickening crunch on the floor below. Where Portal is all about preservation, The Swapper is all about destruction. This is Portal gone evil, and it is wickedly good.

The problem, however, is for as much as it borrowed from Portal, it took the pacing from Dead Space. The first couple of hours are mesmerizing, and the orb collecting feels fresh. However, the game starts to drag at the 75% mark. Throughout the game, you need to collect orbs to unlock rooms, areas, and so on. Early on, it would be 10, 20, or 30, cumulatively, so it goes relatively quickly. Collecting 50 orbs is even a great time. The puzzles do a lot of really interesting things, introduce some neat concepts and challenge your overall competency in a few mind-bending ways.

But once you’re tasked with collecting 90 orbs to unlock the next area, and you’ve cleared the areas enough so that the remaining orbs are scattered across large portions of the map, and the teleport chambers don’t exactly put you super close, and you’re constantly re-treading over territory with the Watchers, whose dialogue triggers every time you go near, the game feels very, very, very laborious. It’s the worst back-and-forth portions of Dead Space.

Yet, slogging through that final quarter is absolutely worth it, because the ending is pitch-perfect. It expertly closes out the game, and firmly establishes what will become regarded as one of the smartest philosophical twists, ever. It is subtle, but the ontological disaster that occurs in the final few minutes of the game will stay with you and its implications will haunt you. Seriously. The Swapper ends where most sci-fi/horror games begin.

The Swapper was provided for review by Facepalm Games

Posted on by Alex Esten in PC, PC Reviews, Reviews