The Swapper Review: A Game of Clones

the swapper cover

The puzzle platforming genre has undergone a pretty remarkable transformation and resurgence over the past five years, and it still seems to be gaining steam.  It feels like it came out of nowhere.  Before Portal came out in 2007, I barely even noticed the genre existed.  We met briefly back in 1994, when I got Lemmings for SNES, but I didn’t really pay attention during our introduction.  We passed each other in the halls a few times over the next decade or so, but I always kept my greetings vague, tossing out a “How’s it going?” or a “Hey… you.”  Then, right before the senior prom, the genre got a makeover in the basement of Valve’s mom’s house, where it learned how to walk into the gymnasium in slow motion, capturing the attention of the Prom King (in this metaphor, that would be me…) and opening the Portal to my heart.

Some other very impressive games followed suit.  Braid, Limbo, Catherine… the list goes on, and it’s a pretty long list.  It is a genre where big ideas are more valuable than big budgets, and as such, it begs for creativity and innovation.  Because of this, several independent developers have been able to make big splashes within this arena.  Two years ago, Portal 2 was my favorite game of the year, and it won top honors from a number of media outlets.  Last year, the independently developed Journey did the same.  Suddenly, the genre that was barely a blip on my radar is dropping off some pretty big shoes at the Goodwill donation center, and developers big and small have a license to wear them.  Can Facepalm Games’ The Swapper walk in those shoes, or should it swap to a smaller size?

 

Many of the environmental elements were based upon found items in real life, explaining why these clones are so adamant about reaching that stovetop popcorn container.

 

Gameplay wise, The Swapper fits the mold of other 2D puzzle platformers, like Braid.  As usual, a unique gameplay mechanic is introduced early on and the player must creatively utilize this mechanic to progress the character through some environment.  In this case, the environment is an abandoned space station, the character is a nameless explorer, and the mechanic is a gun that creates cloned copies of the user.  Up to four clones can be generated at one time by pointing the gun and clicking.  They have no consciousness of their own, and once they are placed, they mimic the original person’s movements exactly.  Naturally, when I first got the gun, I wasted about 15 minutes firing out clone bands and making little choreographed dances to old N’Sync songs.  I call this urge the “Temptations temptation,” and it will be too strong for most players to resist.  To make things worse, separate inputs control the direction the character is walking and the direction she is facing.  The first time you accidentally moonwalk will precede the dozens of times you do it intentionally.  A real life choreographer could retire with this gun.  A sweatshop owner could become a billionaire.

Making copies of yourself is only a portion of the potential, as the gun’s real power lies in its ability to swap the user’s soul between cloned copies.  This mechanic forms the player’s main way of getting around the stages and solving puzzles.  There are also a few other elements to make things more difficult.  Various colored lights hinder the player’s abilities in various ways.  The puzzles are lit up like Amsterdam’s adult-time district, with red lights here and blue lights there.  However, unlike the aforementioned district, the red lights in this game actually prevent you from entering new bodies.  The blue lights are about the same as their Amsterdam equivalents… surprisingly hard, and there is no chance to make copies of yourself.  In addition, there is a way to reverse your character’s gravitational orientation, so you can make your clones leave their footprints on the ceiling.  Okay, I’m finished now… seriously.  That metaphor is exhausted.

 

The puzzles in The Swapper utilize lots of red and blue lights, presumably inspired by Fox’s 2002 criminal action drama, Fastlane.

 

The real strength of the levels lies in the uncluttered nature of the elements they introduce.  The basic idea behind the gun is relatively simple, and the only navigational curveballs are the colored lights and the gravitational switches, both of which are present throughout most of the game.  Some other platformers attempt to produce difficult gameplay by constantly introducing new elements and mechanics to the formula.  The Swapper opts for a more consistent design strategy.  In this game, the core mechanics stay the same throughout, but the levels never become repetitive.  To accomplish this, the level designers had to be enormously creative in finding new ways to use the swapping tool.  This is far from a simple game.  There are no Trials style tutorials to suggest new ways of using the gun.  It took a group of geniuses to fully realize this tool’s potential uses and incorporate them into the levels, and it will take a similar level of genius for players to discover these tactics for themselves.  On more than one occasion, I got stuck on a seemingly simple level before realizing that I had not yet uncovered the strategy I needed to advance.  The Swapper is a game that sends you back to the drawing board without telling you what to draw, as if drawing on a board wasn’t hard enough already.  The result is a challenging exercise in cognitive development and discovery, which, assuming you don’t fail miserably or look up the answers on YouTube, will leave you feeling extremely accomplished and rewarded.

As well-designed as the puzzles are, The Swapper could probably have coasted to good review scores with a mediocre or even subpar story.  Instead, Facepalm Games chose to incorporate a well-written, deep, and philosophical narrative into the running, jumping, and WTF’ing that defines the genre.  As I previously mentioned, players can switch freely between clones, transferring their soul or consciousness from one body to the next.  Only four clones can be created at one time, and to gain them back, players must kill off the ones they have created, either by touching them to make them disappear, dropping them off of ledges, or crushing them.  This where the story’s philosophical nature first comes into play.  Without giving too much away, the story revolves around the origin of the swapping device, the mysterious history of the abandoned vessel, and the nature of the soul swapping itself.  What is the true nature of the soul?  Can a clone without consciousness be murdered?  After swapping, am I still the same person?  Isn’t this a lot like the ending to The Prestige?  What happened to the dove in Christian Bale’s magic trick?  Could I use this device to sneak into the women’s locker room?  Will Hugh Jackman be there?  It would be difficult for a long game to propose these questions.  The Swapper manages to do it in 4-6 hours, and it does so in a seamless enough fashion that the narrative never feels obtrusive.

 

Don't worry.  The clones you create in The Swapper have no consciousness of their own, leaving almost zero chance of hillarious hijinks.

Don’t worry. The clones you create in The Swapper have no free will of their own, leaving almost zero risk of hilarious hijinks.

 

The stunning and atmospheric visuals also contribute to the effectiveness of the story.  The levels are dark and bleak, but gorgeous and uniquely crafted.  Atmospherically, the world conveys a sense of desolation and solitude, creating an eerie ambiance which perfectly complements the slightly creepy, disturbing nature of the storytelling.  The score fits in perfectly, purposefully rising and falling, providing a proper soundtrack without drowning out the drips, drops, and creaks that so well accentuate the sense of isolation in space.  The animations also contribute to the atmosphere.  The character movements are based in Claymation, which in addition to establishing charm, gives their deaths a particularly macabre quality.  When clones are dropped from a ledge, they gruesomely crumple upon impact, accompanied by the sounds of knuckles being cracked, branches breaking, or a fat guy falling into a crate full of Baked Lays.  Imagine if Wallace fell off of the roof and smashed his face on the driveway, or if Gromit got crushed by a passing milk truck.  The narrative emphasizes the weight of these occurrences, but they are fairly trivial from a gameplay perspective.  The visual effects help to achieve a balance between the two perspectives.

 

The art style is very appealing, but you really need to see the animations in motion to get the full impact of the visuals.  Check out the trailer at the end of this article to see the game in action.

 

The game has a couple of drawbacks as well.  For one, depending on your level of intelligence, it is only between four and infinity hours long, and it will likely leave you craving more.  It does not appear to be set up for future downloadable content, there is no level editor, and there is no replay value to the campaign.  It is worth the price of admission for the experience, but you will probably not experience it more than once.  Also, a greater effort could have been made to incorporate the puzzles into the events that unfold onscreen.  There is really no explanation as to why the ship is filled with puzzles, why you have to collect orbs to move forward, or what the hell the orbs are in the first place.  Without revealing spoilers, the ship had a functional purpose once.  Who would build a ship where every room was a deadly puzzle with no functional value?  In Portal, you had to complete puzzles because a psychotic robot was testing you.  In Battleblock Theater, it was psychotic cats.  Within an otherwise well-written story, some reasoning for the random puzzles would have been nice.  Maybe psychotic space chimps?  I don’t know.  Just give us something.

 

There is really no explanation as to why every room in the ship is filled with deadly puzzles.  We tried to reach out to the ship's architect (pictured above), but he was not available for comment.

There is really no explanation as to why every room in the ship is filled with deadly puzzles. We tried to reach out to the ship’s architect (pictured above), but he was not available for comment.

 

Still, within a genre that has seen a lot of great games over the past few years, Facepalm Games’ The Swapper stands tall, immediately establishing itself as one of the most important games of the year.  It is not just another clone, but a genius, unique, well-crafted experience that hits its marks in design, gameplay, storytelling, visuals, and sound.  For a small game, it asks a lot of big questions, but the biggest one might be “Why aren’t you playing me yet?”  The Swapper is a winner, and it is worth the 15 bucks you’ll drop to try it.  Even if you are busy with another game, swap to this one.

 

9/10 – Great

 

 

 

 

Thomas Shamburger
Thomas is one of the original creators of "What's Jump?" As a lifelong gamer, writer, and comedian, his goal is to provide readers with humorous, entertaining, and thought-provoking perspectives on current gaming news and culture. His early career successes in the business world helped to pave the way for the site's launch in 2012. As the Editor in Chief of "What's Jump?" he combines his passions for gaming, writing, entrepreneurship, and comedy.
Thomas Shamburger
Thomas Shamburger

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