The Swindle Review (PC)

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Developer: Size Five Games
Publisher: Size Five Games

Main Review

Review Context: This is the first title I’ve played by Size Five Games. Rogue-likes have been one of my favorite genres ever since The Binding of Isaac came out.
Date of Playthrough: July 2015

PC Specs Game Played on:
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate
Processor: Intel Core i5-3570K CPU @ 3.40 GHz
RAM: 16 GB
Video Card: Nvidia GeForce GTX 760
Resolution: 1920 x 1080, 60Hz
Disclosure: This review was based off of a review copy provided by Size Five Games.

The Swindle is a 2D, side scrolling, stealth action, rogue-like. platformer. The goal is to break into randomly generated buildings to collect money by picking it up or hacking computers, then escape without getting killed by patrolling security robots. The player has to collect enough money to buy enough upgrades to attempt to steal “The Devils Basilisk,” a device that after 100 days will become operational. According to the game, “It’s surveillance capabilities will be total.” “Your career as a master burglar will be untenable.”

You start on “Day 100” with no upgrades, and only access to the first of five levels, not including the final mission. Every randomly generated attempt counts as one day whether the heist ends in success or failure. To reach the end you have to buy access to all five levels in turn and then buy access to the final mission. You get one attempt to steal “The Devils Basilisk” and escape, but if you fail you have to then re purchase access before being allowed to reattempt the final mission. If the final mission is not completed before the final day, the game ends and starts completely over; no upgrades or later stage access. The five stages increase in difficulty as they go up; introducing more enemies, larger buildings, new enemies, and stronger versions of old enemies. However, you also get significantly more money the higher up in the levels you go. Apart from the varying enemies and obstacles, the different levels simply vary in color pallet, slightly adhering to a theme. The difficulty not only scales up as the levels go up, but new enemies get introduced as you buy upgrades. There may only be five levels, but the difficulty does change very dynamically.

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The Swindle is a game that frustrates to no end; Its physics and controls are loose, imprecise, and unreliable, yet the game is built around very high stakes, making every time you lose meaningful. What sucks is that almost 80% of the times that I die, I don’t feel like it is my fault. The game is a rather simple platformer with a couple weird mechanics. You can latch onto walls and jump off them, however you can only jump at two angles. My playthroughs were done with a controller. Up and jump makes the player do a very high jump with very little sideways momentum, while right and jump makes the player jump a lower arc, but far to the right or left, depending on what side the wall is facing. The problems arise when you’re trying to jump from a wall and into a window, but instead of a long jump, you do a high jump, which doesn’t get you to the other side. This usually results in you falling and dying, considering in The Swindle you can only fall 5 blocks before dying, unless an upgrade is purchased.

The way that you latch onto walls in The Swindle is by simply moving into the wall. Unless you have the upgrade which lets you stick there, you begin sliding down the wall shortly after. Since there is no grab button, whether you want to stick to the wall or not, if you touch it then you stick to it. This can suck because then the only way to get off is to either jump at one of two possible angles, both going mostly up, or after a delay pressing down to drop straight down. The game not only expects players, but forces them to act quickly and precisely to find the right moment in which to jump in between patrolling guard robots and whack all of them without getting seen or hit. All of this means I can’t make any sudden moves near a wall because I might stick to it, then accidentally hit the jump button and go flying into a spotlight. Sometimes the game doesn’t even let you jump when you want to. Trying to jump shortly after landing can cause you to not jump and simply kill yourself on what ever you were trying to jump over.

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On top of the fact the game feels like a constant struggle with what should be a simple platformer, the game has what is actually a rather pleasant steampunk vibe. Its good for a game to have a style or be stylized, but not when the methods used to stylize the game inhibit playing it. The game has lots of dirt and bloom and smoke effects that give it its flair and style but these often greatly obscure your vision. With many small laser fence nodes, mines, tiny enemies, and random debris, it’s easy to not be able to see something because you’re trying hard to simply jump through a window. There are options to remove or lessen these effects, but that just makes the game look more uninteresting, causing it to lose that style it had going for it. I don’t want to have to turn down the graphics just so I can see what I’m doing. This game isn’t even very hard to run, so it feels like a waste turning those settings down.

Even the UI is often hard to see; one of the few menus in the game is the upgrades menu, and the way it navigates from option to option makes no sense. It has staggered options that select left to right, but don’t look like they should. The marker that shows what you’re currently selecting, besides the small description on the right, is only a slightly different shade of the old projector TV theme the UI is designed to be. You can also select the upgrade trees names and the back button, but they don’t even have a marker to show you you’re on them, they just barely pulse instead. Add in the flicker, the undulation, the fake picture ripples, and it takes me way too long to just find my selector, and even longer to figure out how to navigate through the menu properly. There is an upgrade for your goggles that gives you little waypoints that point towards specific objects in the buildings and give you a distance in numbers. The only problem is that at standard 1920 X 1080 resolution I am actually unable to read the numbers because they are so pixelated. It’s something so simple that it’s just a crime to overlook.

 

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The game also doesn’t tell you how to play; it’s simple enough to understand, but has a bunch of quirks that make things more difficult. The game doesn’t tell you anything, in an effort to make you feel like you’re learning, as if you’re getting better on your own because the game isn’t helping. The problem is that the game is so linear and one dimensional, learning these things is just a one time thing. “Oh, I died because I didn’t know that this would work that way.” Once you know how it works the learning curve is over. The game opts not to tell you and instead costs one, or more attempts to find out. Trying to learn these simple mechanics like that basically guarantees that your first 100 run attempt will fail miserably, only serving to make one’s first impression feel very lackluster because of how upsetting the game is. Even if you do make it to the final goal, you have to buy the most expensive thing in the game to attempt it, then the game doesn’t even tell you what you are supposed to do. It says “Get in, get it, get out.” Apparently that means hack all six plus security stations first, then hack the basilisk, then get out. If you lose you have to farm the money to buy the most expensive thing in the game again. You don’t purposely not tell the player how to beat the boss, then give them a ridiculously harsh punishment for losing.

The descriptions for the upgrades aren’t even accurate; half of the upgrades that cost a lot of money, have abilities or uses that aren’t explained in the upgrade description, like £125,000 for a hacking station that allows the player to hack Scotland Yard remotely. Apparently that bit of information is supposed to mean that you can spend money to give yourself more attempts than 100. This is seriously one of the best things in the game, and I only found it after struggling through five whole 100 run attempts. I didn’t get anything out of that experience, and I wish that I had known about it sooner. I don’t think it is too much to ask for accurate, or at least complete upgrade descriptions, especially since buying upgrades is about the only other thing you can do besides participate in the game’s one minute gameplay loop over and over.

The only upgrade that had a hidden use that felt worthwhile was the BUGs; tools you place onto computers that over time suck money and place it directly in your bank. The cool thing is that it continues to pull money even into following attempts. Every attempt the computers get refilled and the BUGs give you money per second based on the total money in the computer. Not only does this incentivize the hyper entertaining strategy of waiting around doing nothing, but it almost completely negates having to escape alive. Half of the game’s premise is eliminated by this item because the best way I found to beat it is to run in, plant BUGs, die, and then sit on an attempt for ten minutes doing nothing while I get money. After a random amount of time the BUG will be “found,” and then go away forever. You don’t keep making money over time if you get killed, only while your doing an attempt, so why would I not just sit there twiddling my thumbs? Who in the world actually thinks promoting waiting in a video game is a good idea?

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Lastly, the way that the money intake is scaled and the price of the upgrades, mixed with the attempt based time limit only serves to heighten the frustration of losing attempts to stupid stuff. The upgrade prices range from £100 to £400,000. There are only six upgrades that are under £10,000, and the max amount of money you can get on the first stage of five is around £1,000. One of those upgrades is just to be able to hack computers for money in the first place. Your first two attempts out of 100 are guaranteed to be spent trying to pick up money off the ground just to actually play the game, provided that trying to overcome the controls with no mobility upgrades doesn’t get you killed. Then The Swindle gives thieves bonus money based on xp gained from successfully complete heists in a row without dying. Every time you die it generates a new random thief, which not only serves as another thing to get upset about when the game decides to kill you, but it totally ignores the little bit of story the game bothers telling you. It says “Your days as a master burglar will be untenable,” when it knows that your name changes every time you die. Why put the story in at all if you’re not going to follow it?

The game also takes way too long to get interesting; because there are only five levels, the difference in rewards changes drastically between levels. It more than doubles from the previous level, often to the point where at level one a computer is worth £600, and on level 4 a computer is worth about £7,300, depending on how many days you have left. The game rewards spending the money first on raising the difficulty in order to rake in more money per heist and have more by the end. However, without buying the upgrades, trying to combat the increased difficulty while still struggling with basic platforming mechanics is just more infuriating. Every attempt wasted only makes things look more bleak, and every death that isn’t my fault only makes my vision more red. The game also slowly makes everything give more and more money just over time, but the initial values are really low so you don’t start making really good money until over half of your attempts have gone by. You can get to the point where the reward matches the difficulty, so it feels worth it, and you start making progress. You can get enough upgrades to overcome the difficulty, but getting there is a long and arduous task that forces you to slowly watch your time dwindle, before having to go through the process all over again.

The only thing this game does right, and the only reason that this is even a game, is when you do manage to walk away with £50,000 from a heist and it feels awesome. You get that triumphant euphoria that a game like Dark Souls gives you. The sound design is interesting and services to get you pumped when things go down. When you get caught and the lights start flashing, the music kicks up, and it’s a mad dash to the exit before the cops show up. When you hop, skip, and hack your way out it feels really good. The difference between The Swindle and Dark Souls, however, is that Dark Souls’s gameplay loop lasts more than a minute, and it doesn’t force you to restart after 100 deaths. Dark Souls has been criticized for having bad or clunky controls, but they are reliable and fair. Unforgiving maybe, but you can still do great things like fight a boss without getting hit with nothing but a dagger if you’re good enough. The Swindle’s controls don’t even allow for that high flying gameplay, which subsequently is about the only time I find it fun. More often than not, when you get caught, you then immediately die in the resulting panic. Dark Souls is also fun from the beginning of the game. There isn’t this excruciating wind-up time before you start getting to where the game is good.

I can respect the no hand holding mantra; Dark Souls did it beautifully, and figuring things out for yourself feels good, but The Swindle isn’t an RPG that follows a story that requires you to do a range of things. This is a rogue-like; you do one thing the whole game, over and over, and it doesn’t even get interesting until the fourth level, where you have enough upgrades to get over the stiff controls, and the difficulty starts to come from the level design instead of the poor game design. You’re guaranteed to spend the first three 100 attempt playthroughs on the arduously boring first and second levels because the game doesn’t give you enough information. Why would I want to get good at a game that isn’t immediately fun to play, and that ruthlessly punishes me for failing? Then once you’ve figured out these things there’s no reason to play the game any more. The only thing random is the level layouts, so if I played it again it would be the same build path, while doing the exact same thing for the thousandth time. Rogue-likes are popular because they have some of the most replayability of any genre, and the developers managed to screw that up somehow. Mark of the Ninja is effectively what this game could have been, minus the 100 day time limit and the risk versus reward rogue-like structure. It has all the ideas and mechanics that The Swindle has, but in a setting that makes it feel fun and rewarding, not unfair and rage inducing. Mark of the Ninja not only doesn’t mercilessly punish the player but it has much tighter and more satisfying controls. Until The Swindle plays as well as that, I want nothing to do with it.

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Mark of the Ninja (PC)

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