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Review – The Swapper (PC)

The indie game scene has had no shortage of puzzle games over the years. In a post-Braid world, it has become rather common for the most noteworthy indie games to have puzzle elements, and luckily we’ve gotten plenty of entertaining ones over the years. In 2013 the puzzle game you definitely need to play is The Swapper, a moody atmospheric puzzle game built on using clones to solving its puzzles.

The game what initially comes off as a simple set up. The basic premise ultimately falls right in line with an Event Horizon or a Dead Space. Group of scientists bring something on board, it makes everyone go crazy and before long the entire station is abandoned. What makes The Swapper so engaging, however, on its narrative level is what it focuses on with this premise.

The titular Swapper is a device that lets you create a clone of your playable character up to 4 times. They all move parallel with your movements, and you have the ability to actually switch from clone to clone, and the game deals with larger questions concerning these clones. Do they have a soul? Exactly what is a mind to begin with? In some stretches it can be a little much, but for the most part the game handles all of this with a deft touch. Usually cryptic enough to stay interesting, but answering enough along the way to keep you invested.

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It works especially well because of the superb atmosphere in The Swapper. The game uses Claymation-like visuals to create its environments. It’s not exactly Gumby, but similar ideas are at play here: take a fair amount of commonplace items and create environments out of them. The end result is something truly striking and a cohesive visual aesthetic. Great use of lighting gives certain rooms a unique sense of flavor and variety, but never allows any one section to feel disjointed.

Of course, none of this would mean anything if actually playing The Swapper wasn’t enjoyable. The Swapper is certainly one of the mort clever puzzle games you will ever play, to say the least. The controls are mostly sharp, and you’re well-equipped to handle every puzzle the game throws at you from the get-go. There is no upgrading and the core mechanics don’t change. Certain actions might not feel as fluid, but they are never really cause of any frustration when you misfire.

The structure is a mix of linear puzzle game and Metroid. You will navigate through the space station, which usually requires some form of backtracking. Unlike Metroid, it’s not about coming back with new gear, and more often than not you’ll find a way to fast travel back to previous locations. Each room is filled with its own unique puzzle that requires you to pick up an orb. These orbs are what you need to open up the next area in the game.

You don’t have to solve every current puzzle you have on your map before you’re allowed to move to the next area. This ultimately allows the game to keep the pace going, and make sure the player doesn’t get bogged down in any one area. Plus you’ll be able to come back to a puzzle with a fresh perspective based on what you learned from other puzzles later in the game. You do, however, need to solve every puzzle to get to the end.

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Now I did say the game doesn’t really change on a mechanical level, and that’s true. But to keep the puzzles interesting, the game usually throws in a new wrinkle or two with its puzzle designs. Your basic abilities allow you to create clones, and swap back and forth between them. A lot of the game is simply creating a clone at a specific point (usually on a higher ledge) and swapping to that clone in some fashion. The catch is that the environments have specific colored lights meant to hinder you. Blue lights stop you from creating clones in that area, red lights stop you from swapping between clones, and purple ones? You got it, they stop both. You’ll also deal with pressure plates and gravity while you’re at it.

The game uses these elements in genius ways to create puzzle designs that are elaborate in their look, but not really as complex as they seem. One such instance had me dealing with pressure plates and gravity, requiring me to carefully place each clone on a specific plate to get one clone closer to an orb. Some of these clones were upside down, and others were right side up. These pressure plates had an effect on walls that would block the path, so I had to gather my remaining clones to open up a clean path to swap to my destination. I had to be mindful of every movement I make because I had to place each clone just right. After all, when I move, all the clones move in the same direction. Once everything was set, it was a simple matter of swapping between one clone to another, and then finally getting the orb I’d worked so hard to pick up.

The Swapper is simple and clever all the way through. No one puzzle is too difficult, but they are all intricate along the way, never really requiring a solution where you need to think outside the box, but ultimately satisfying due to their detailed nature. And it is an absolute joy to solve these puzzles to boot. Plenty of puzzle games know how to stump you, and usually it’s because they’re obtuse about it. Other games make things too easy, and are rather forgettable for it. The Swapper avoids the fate of the latter by being sophisticated enough on a design front to make the player feel resourceful. Not many puzzle games can lay claim to such sharp puzzle design that make the player feel brilliant along the way. The Swapper can make that claim as it does it consistently throughout the 4-5 hour experience.

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Yes, the game is short, but the brevity of the game allows it to end before it overstays its welcome. Ultimately, though, I was left wanting a little bit more, because as clever as The Swapper is, it ultimately lacks significant brain teasers. A few head-scratchers really would have put the game over, and the lack of them makes replaying this game less rewarding as a whole. The solutions ultimately end up being simple enough most of the way through that you’ll probably solve many of the puzzles fairly quickly. And while the narrative has its moments, such as the environmental story-telling and the cryptic files you find along the way, there is something lacking there as well. The game has two distinct endings, and depending on your decision you can get something more memorable or frankly something forgettable.

A few generations ago, all of this would be afterthoughts for a game so clever from beginning to end. But in a generation that has had so many excellent puzzle games The Swapper is simply another really good one. And if that sounded like something you don’t think you should play, then you have a problem. Because The Swapper is definitely worth playing.

The Good

  • Clever puzzles
  • Strong isolated atmosphere
  • Striking visual design
  • Interesting narrative themes
  • Fitting music

The Bad

  • No major head-scratchers
  • One of the two endings is weak

Final Score – 8/10

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