Boot up Swarm for the first time and you’re greeted with an adorable little… thing. Squat, bulbous and blue, stood to the side of the main menu is a Swarmite – let’s call him George. Like lemmings and haggises, Swarmites are not long-lived creatures at the best of times, and George, the timorous wee beastie, doesn’t stand a chance. For in the corner warns an option: DO NOT PRESS Y.
So, of course, you press Y.
And for a long moment, there’s nothing. Your sense of anticipation builds… and peaks. You begin to wonder if the Xbox has even registered your button press. Then, when you’re least expecting it, from off screen, a scythe swings down, or an arrow hits home, or a hammer falls, or an explosive goes off, and George, well. George is gone. Goodbye George!
But don’t beat yourself up about it. We’d all have done the same thing, and besides, George wasn’t an only child. Far from it. There are plenty more Swarmites where he came from, to dismember, disembowel and indeed murder in the manner of your choosing. In the time it took me to S-rank Swarm – somewhere in the region of three hours – I’d massacred something to the order of 20,000 cutesy creatures. Not all on the menu screen, obviously.
Swarm is ten levels long, with boss fights at the midpoint and the endgame, and for a while, sure, it’s a bit of fun. It’s also comprehensively broken in some respects, and mediocre in most every other. For starters, it killed my 360 on three occasions during the brief period I spent with the latest from Deathspank developers Hothead Games. The mostly static camera is a nightmare, obscuring far more level design than it ever deems reveal. Add to that a baffling randomness to success or failure sure to frustrate even the most patient players, and you begin to get the picture.
You control a swarm of 50 Swarmites, which you can order to bunch up or else spread out with the triggers to make it along a narrow platform or avoid having all your dudes taken out by a single cannonball. Swarmites can otherwise jump, and dash, and stack to reach particularly high platforms, and your goal is to get from one end of each obstacle course to the other whilst collecting a certain amount of DNA pickups. So long as you get enough of that good stuff, you need only save a single Swarmite each level – though regular respawn points mean it shouldn’t come to that – but if you fail to meet the DNA threshold required to continue, you’ll be forced replay… and replay… and replay. Ad infinitum.
It isn’t immediately apparent that Swarm is all about building up a multiplier, but beyond the three tutorial levels, that’s exactly what gameplay amounts to: platforming from DNA strand to DNA strand before your multiplier levels off and with it your chances of scoring however many million points this or that level demands. You can sacrifice Swarmites to keep the all-important number ticking up, which to a certain extent encourages smart, strategic play, yet it’s an exasperating business more often than a satisfying one, because death can, and does, come from everywhere, and the pitfalls before you are so inadequately telegraphed as to feel indiscriminate.
And that’s a real shame. Because there are bits of Swarm that speak to the game it could have been – should have been, by all rights, given that it’s been in development for four years: an exorbitantly long time for an XBLA or PSN game with so little in the way of ambition. However, even its moments are only moments. On odd occasions you’ll come across evidence of your many, many, many previous deaths, such as an icky blue smear marking your previous point of no return, or a battalion of expired Swarmites pinned by arrows to the floor before you. Sadly there’s precious little persistence in this regard. Let’s say it’s no Super Meat Boy – though God love Hothead, they’ve clearly tried to emulate some of that game’s carnivorous quirks. But you know, do, or do not; someone wise once said that, and it holds true here.
Then there’s the aforementioned start screen, where every button press amounts to murder: from above or below, from within and without, death comes in all shapes and sizes in the latest from Hothead, and for a while, it’s funny. But that menu might just be the best thing about Swarm.
Which says pretty much all that needs saying.
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