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The Swindle Review (PS Vita)

The SwindleThe Swindle has a pretty solid central idea. One hundred days to pull off a big heist. Each day is a life as you attempt to pull off smaller heists to get the money and equipment you need for that final big score. Each time you go out on a mission, whether you fail and gather no money, partially succeed and bring back a little money, or pull off a fantastic run and scoop up all of the cash, you’ll be spending one more precious day. As those days trickle away, any failure puts more pressure on you. If you’ve just failed five missions in a row, how do you pull it back? Play safe and escape with meager rewards? Or push yourself onto ever greater risks, hoping that one big score can erase the previous failures and get you back on track?

The Swindle is certainly a game about risk and reward. Nothing else I’ve ever played piles on quite so much pressure. Sure, a Spelunky run that fails at Olmec might be frustrating, but you could potentially get that far in your next attempt in six or seven minutes. In The Swindle, failure can be a cruel spiral, and if you run out of days before that final score you might have wasted tens of hours of tense, nerve shredding game time for no real reward. Except all that fun you had….

And for me that’s where The Swindle falls down. There’s a real stickiness to the controls that take a lot of getting used to. To be successful, 2D stealth games have to work hard to make you feel in control. If you feel like failure is your own fault, you’re likely to push on through frustration, taking consolation in the fact that you will master the controls. In the case of The Swindle though, even after ten hours of perseverance I still found the platforming to be a real chore. To some extent this is an intentional design choice – your character is utterly hamstrung early on in the game and only becomes competent as you unlock upgrades. Simple actions, like being able to look up or down to see what danger you might be falling (or jumping) into are unlocks, meaning that your early missions are tackled blind. With the platforming at the whim of the procedurally generated game engine, it’s common to face situations where you simply can’t prevail regardless of skill level.

Or can you? I’m not sure. I’ve thought about this a lot. You see The Swindle is a really hard game. I am not good at it. Is that my fault? Maybe. But I really tried. I really pushed myself to learn the basics. Suffice it to say, if I hadn’t been reviewing it, I would have quit much earlier. The early game is punishing and not fun at all. So am I just bad at it?

The Swindle1Well eventually I did find my feet. And even then, I can’t say I was loving the experience. I’ve Spelunk-ed at a pretty decent level and Rogue Legacy-ed passably well, but in those games I really did feel like the process of learning was fun. The process of learning in The Swindle was just painful. Even when I got (a bit) better at it, I resented the game. My success felt like luck and my failure felt like design. My deaths felt like they were conspired from the start, and when I managed a decent Heist it was generally because the procedural generation knocked up a level that was bizarrely, comically easy. For me, this is an inversion of how a game like this should feel. I want to be the author of my own fate, be it successful or otherwise.

One baffling aspect of the game stands out for me as representative of The Swindle’s cruel, flaky design. When an enemy disappears off screen, they don’t keep moving. So if there is an enemy patrolling a platform below you, he won’t keep walking when you don’t see him. If you want to wait for a moment for him to move past, you can’t, because as soon as you jump down he’ll be in the same place as he was when you last saw him. It’s like the enemies respawn in the same spot each time the screen moves. It’s a bizarre, maddening design choice. While it might seem minor, in the early stages of the game you can’t look up or down to see enemies off screen. Generally then, your only option is to jump down to a lower level, possibly into danger or death, and simply hope for the best. The alternative is to simply bail out and hope that the next randomised level is less arbitrarily impossible.

There’s a cruelness and a coldness to The Swindle. Everything, from the tick-tick music to the wail of the sirens is constantly grating on your nerves. It’s effective and affecting – you really do feel the tension – but that’s just no fun. There’s no reprieve. No real reward, as the gadgets you unlock are countered by the increased security you face. You never feel like a capable robber. Instead, you’re just banging your head against a wall, hoping that the Gods of chance or fate offer up an easy Heist through blind luck.

The SwindleIt’s a shame. The Swindle looks pretty good. It’s got style and the gadgets are clever. Sadly, the final nail in the coffin, for this version at least, is the poor performance. On Vita it get’s pretty frame-y when there’s a lot on screen. In a less harsh game you might forgive unresponsive controls that result in your death in a pit of spikes. In a game that’s already this mean, it’s a giant log crushing the camels back.

And as for that ending…. I dunno. I was really happy. But only, sadly, because it meant I could finally stop playing The Swindle.

2 tears running down a reviewers cheek as he sits on a toilet with his Vita, crying out of 5

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