The Swapper Review (PC)
Super Metroid. There, I said it. It’s one of the greatest games of all time. It may be THE greatest game of all time. And The Swapper is a bit like it. It has a sliver of Metroid’s brilliance, but even a sliver is enough to make it shine brighter than almost every other game you could play. Like chipping a tiny piece off of a Silmaril, The Swapper has retained a little bit of magic.
And although Super Metroid is the most obvious initial point of comparison, The Swapper also owes a debt to a number of other games. Mostly puzzle games. Because while The Swapper may take place in an eery alien landscape, in a deserted space station and even in space itself, the gameplay is vastly different from your typical 2D platformer. This is a puzzle game, and a clever, tough and rewarding one at that.
At the start of the game you find yourself in a bleak, desolate, lonely and empty world. Falling from space, you are exploring a colony (of sorts), but one where clearly things have went wrong, and there’s no one around. Your only interactions are with a mysterious female (who gives you cryptic clues), with computer logs (which hint at some big mystery) and with weird, possibly sentient rocks (who offer philosophical musings about reality). The environments, through a combination of darkness, coloured lighting, echoes, long shadows and ambient audio combined with moments of eery silence, are terrifyingly atmospheric. This is a creepy game, and played late at night, The Swapper evokes Event Horizon, Aliens and Moon. As an interactive experience, it manages to be more isolating and affecting than any of those movies though, and it gave me genuine chills.
While there’s a sense of underlying menace to the game world, the gameplay is more playful, albeit with a macabre sense of humour. You create copies of yourself with a mysterious artifact you find early on in the game. You can transfer your consciousness to one of these copies through a beam that you fire at them, which is possible as long as you have line of sight. Meanwhile, the copies which do not retain your consciousness are expendable, and at times you will actively need to kill them to proceed, most frequently by dropping them down pits to see their bones break and their bodies rag-doll in a realistic manner. Of course, this transfer of consciousness makes the player feel uneasy. The developers of The Swapper are clever, and I am sure they are commenting in some way on philosopher Derek Parfit’s thought experiment on the teletransporter (or if you want a more contemporary example, this is like the “transporter” in Christopher Nolan’s movie The Prestige).
The real trick to the gameplay is that when you move, all of your copies move as well. If they touch, the copies recombine. The puzzles often require that you have switches held down (by having a copy stand on them), and the difficulty arises in moving more than one copy around to the right spot when your controls move them all together. You are typically collecting orbs to progress and unlock doors, and only the “real” version of you can pick things up. This means that often even after you have seemingly solved the puzzle and held switches to open the way to your goal, a further layer of complexity is added as you swap consciousness from clone to clone, trying to get to the goal.
The most basic way that complexity is added to these puzzles is with coloured lighting. In The Swapper, red lights prevent you moving consciousness, blue lights prevent copies being made and purple prevents both. It takes a while to get your head round this, and be prepared to think laterally and creatively.
And this is not a game you can platform your way through. Reactions and quick thinking are not generally the way to progress. If you don’t like twitch gaming and instead want something that really challenges your problem solving and spacial thinking, this is the game for you. Your little spaceman avatar can jump about as high as you can in real life. He’s not fast. He doesn’t have a missile launcher or a spin attack. All he has is the strange device and his (your) wits.
Now I don’t like puzzle games much. I am not a patient man. I loved the style of Portal, but the puzzles frustrated me. I have no tolerance for being stuck and I get frustrated when making no progress. Despite this, I enjoyed the puzzles in The Swapper. When I got stuck, I enjoyed thinking my way out. When I learned how to complete a tough puzzle, it was like something unlocked in my brain. I achieved a higher understanding of the game. I “leveled up”, but not in the sense that my character got better. No, I leveled up my own brain, and added a new tool that I could use to solve more puzzles in the future. I even learned new tricks that would let me go back and complete earlier puzzles that had defeated me at the time.
The games map is flawless, showing where you’ve been, where is still blocked off and which areas have been unlocked. When you get enough orbs to open a new area, the game map is good enough to show you where to go. There’s no wasted time tackling things you have proved you can already do. No respawning enemies to impede your progress. Your always pushing at the boundaries of what you’ve already achieved, chipping away at the coal face to make progress and facing new challenges the whole time. Every new area is new and foreboding in its own way, and whether it’s overgrown gardens, zero gravity domes or research labs with failed experiments, every environment you explore seems more ominous and laden with mysteries than the last.
The Swapper is a masterpiece of games design, combined with some of the most immersive and unnerving environment design you can find in a game this year. It invites comparisons with SUper Metroid, and doesn’t suffer from them. The few flaws it has (no controller support, poor character animation, the occasional obtuse puzzle) can’t really overshadow how much of a success it is. It aims for a singular vision and it has a focus and clarity to its design that’s present in the very best puzzle games. The only time I wasn’t enjoying it was when it was unnerving me too much with its eery, haunted, echoing emptiness. It’s like staring into the void, and having the void stare back. And enjoying it.
4.5 existential questions about screaming in space and who hears you out of 5The Swapper Review (PC),