‘Procedural generation’ has become a buzz phrase within the gaming industry. It’s associated with impressive games like, ‘Super Meat boy’, ‘The Binding of Isaac’ and the highly anticipated ‘No Man’s Sky’. It’s also associated with some real stinkers that aren’t even worthy of mention. So how does The Swindle hold up?
The Swindle is masterminded by British indie developers Size five games and Curve digital. You play the role of a master burglar in an alternate steampunk universe based in London, England in the Year 1849. You are made aware of a global surveillance system in Scotland Yard called, The Devil’s Basilisk. If it comes online your career in larceny is over, permanently. You have 100 days until its activation. Your job is to break in and steal money from buildings to finance your final heist to steal this AI to prevent it from ever becoming operational.
The soundtrack is great. It hits you from the moment you start the game and really gets the adrenalin pumping. There’s a constant sound of a ticking clock that amps up the pressure. One really nice feature was the sound of Big Ben chiming in the distance. Upon checking I found it always did this, just like the real Big Ben, at one minute to the hour. The gongs aren’t precise to real-time but it’s still a nice touch. The art style has a gritty cartoon look that belies exactly how deep and challenging this game really is.
It’s clear from the offset this game won’t hold my hand and I’m cool with that. The initial enemy types are standard robotic police with a limited FoV (Field of View). You can stand right in front of them and as long as you’re not within it, they can’t see you. You are armed only with a blackjack so getting up close and personal is the only option right now. A way to do this with relative ease is to use doors to block their FoV. When they turn, open the door and take them out. An interesting tactic is to open doors for them to walk through. Hide above the door until the opportune moment and then subdue them, ninja style. Through over confidence or maybe that infernal ticking clock in the background, your instinct will be to rush it. As a result you will be spotted. The alarms ring and you may not be exactly sure what to do. A moments panic or hesitation and you will be caught. You feel your first lesson of the day sinking in. Ignore the ticking clock and exercise patience.
Every time you are defeated you are procedurally generated into another interesting looking character. It seems the Devil’s Basilisk will affect the local thieves guild and they’ve all come to stop it. Thinking outside the box is actively encouraged. Jumping up the building’s walls and navigating the rooftops can be tricky. Yet, ultimately rewards you with alternate points of entry. There are drainpipes but sadly they’re purely aesthetic and you can’t climb them. You can find yourself stuck on one side of the building with no way to escape. Again, the game teaches you an important lesson. Always make sure you have a route for escape. This isn’t “Metal gear solid”, if the alarm rings you can’t hide and hope it goes away. You have limited time before invincible Robocop’s turn up. You can avoid them initially but then they send a gunship to crash through the walls to gun you down. Escaping in the POD is the only option if you want to make a getaway with all the lovely loot.
You might find yourself hitting your head against the preverbal gaming brick wall. The learning experience goes beyond just mere gameplay. You start the game on your makeshift steam powered airship. On the left is your onboard computer. It’s worth your time to check it out. You need to fully familiarize yourself with the skill trees by reading every one of them in minute detail. You can do this immediately, before going into the first heist. This would be a good idea. Get busted and fail or comeback with a sweet haul, it’s going to cost you a precious Day. Remember that infernal ticking? That’s the 100 days count down to game over ticking away…
The goals in this game are set entirely by you. You need to pick the correct skill and work towards it. You’re a cybercriminal, so it’s time to start thinking like one. Your focus should be on hacking to get a larger income because in this game money equals power and you need lots of it. With this in mind, one of the skills you want to grab as soon as possible is the Bug tool. Why? Well, after you’ve hacked a cash dispensing terminal you can place it next to it. What this does is gives you constant increments of cash directly into your account. Not only can you stack this effect, it continues to add funds even if you start a new level or zone. Some may argue that it’s potentially game breaking. However, they don’t last forever and you need to get to a terminal and hack it to use it. Which is easier said than done. There is also a certain enemy type designed specifically to negate it. You can be right in the middle of a level and suddenly get the warning that your account is being hacked and you’re hemorrhaging money fast! Two options present themselves. Get to the roof and stop the hack or head to your POD and leave the level. Depending on where you are and what you are doing either option could be very tricky. Regardless of what you chose, if you rush you could get spotted making you lose out on untapped funds and another Day passes by.
This brings me on to one of the strongest points in the game. Even with the bug and cash perks this game is seriously challenging. This is mainly due to the extremely impressive enemy variety. These scale up by adding new enemy types on a daily basis. Each new zone you enter has specific types to that area mixed up with ones you’re familiar with. Each enemy has it’s own unique ability to learn a strategy to. You have several in later levels that respond if you make too much sound. There’s always something fresh to learn and adapt your play style to. I’m pretty sure there are ones I haven’t seen. Even after extensive play I’m still like, “What the hell is that? Followed soon after by, “How do I deal with it?”
Being a cybercriminal hacking is your weapon. You will discover you can hack mines. These can be used against enemies by getting them to walk over them. It would have been nice to be able to move mines around but sadly you can’t. From the second zone on you can hack security terminals. This shuts down surveillance, deactivates drones, cameras and in some situations, the cash terminal’s firewall. If you have purchased the hack drones skill you can turn the tables. Use your newfound ally to clear rooms that are full of tricky enemies. However, you’re not in direct control of these drones. The AI can be a little screwy and not perform to task you ideally want them to.
Other abilities of note are the wall hang, triple jump, EMP and bombs. Wall hang and triple jump allows greater control over traversing the environment. Especially useful when it comes to things like tricky jumps across the room or scaling the building. The EMP device is primarily for dealing with tough situations. It’s balanced out by having a limited range and a slow recharge after a single use. The bombs make things really interesting. Finding the set path seemingly impossible? That’s fine, go make your own route by blowing a hole through the wall and gain the advantage. At times they can be used to take out troublesome ceiling cameras. If you upgrade them you can carry up to ten of these wonderful devices. You can even remote detonate them to deal with tougher enemies when your trusty blackjack just wont cut it. Please note, both the EMP and bombs should not be used near any computer terminals. If they are hit by the blast radius cash terminals stop functioning and security terminals sound the alarm.
Each room is a randomly generated puzzle for you to solve. Enemies of varying abilities randomly grouped together with level hazards create unique challenges to overcome. In earlier stages you can end up facing some impossible situations you simply aren’t equipped to deal with. In these situations it’s best to go for what you can get. The information you glean is just as valuable as loot. You can now create a rewarding upgrade goal to work toward. Enemies can magically appear at the edge of the screen blocking your only viable path. This causes some initial frustration until you can find a work around. At no point do you ever feel over powered. Instead, simply more competent to handle what the game throws at you.
The Swindle has an adequate but sadly not optimised control system. Even though there’s a rebinding option for the basic controls there’s nothing for the skills. Now if I could rebind skills I would have wall hang as one of the two completely unused shoulder buttons. Considering how much you will use this skill I don’t understand why they chose a rather clumsy ‘up’ on the analog instead of a more accurate trigger hold as the best way to use this mechanic.
Your journey will lead you to the ultimate heist, The Swindle. This level is extremely difficult and you will need to be at full strength to do it. This is because it’s a one shot deal that costs £400,000. If you lose for any reason the area becomes closed off again until you buy your way back in. This entire time your days have been ticking down. Don’t panic! If you need to gain more days you can buy the ability to hack Scotland Yard from your onboard computer. This is balanced by a gradually increasing the price for each extra day you purchase. Don’t fool yourself though; you are only postponing the inevitable. The Swindle must be done or it’s a punishing game over. You will have to start again from the beginning, fully reset. This can be crushing but don’t give up.
To conclude, if ‘MegaMan’ and ’Bloodborne’ had a love child it would turn out something like this. Only, that would be over simplifying it. It would have a unique trait all of it’s own. You see, you don’t have to buy the Bug tool or hack Scotland Yard and buy more time. You can augment this game around your play style and skill level. I’m sure there will be core gamers who will relish the seemingly impossible challenge of completing this within the allotted 100 days without using the Bug.
That said, outside of further challenge or failure to complete there really isn’t much else to replay for. Having buttons on the pad that aren’t allotted to anything, especially something you will use as much as Wall hanging, is a bit of a crime. A minor offence is the rare instances of impossible situations that arise due to the procedural generation.
Ultimately, The Swindle is a tough but rewarding game. Get past a steep learning curve and the game opens up like a finely oiled lock. Unlike many modern videogames you have to really investigate, learn and adapt to steal the games secrets.
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