The Unfinished Swan
January 3, 2013 1 Comment
I’ve spent the last couple days attempting to write a game of the year piece, and when I tweeted that I was ready to name Journey my game of the year, I had a few skeptics say “what about Unfinished Swan?”
Oh yea. Forgot about that one.
Well, now I’ve played Unfinished Swan. It’s fun. It’s original. It’s got a very cool narrative. And it’s not a game of the year contender. Not even close. It would be lucky to catch a sniff of the game of the year’s stale fart.
But it’s really cool though.
What stands out about Unfinished Swan is how good a job it does of making the player revert back to childhood. It does feel like you are a child whose imagination while being read a fairytale is running wild. This could have been mishandled so badly, but instead it comes across as totally authentic and charming. I could see why so many people would name this game of the year, especially those that put a premium on story and emotion over gameplay. My only real complaint with the story is Unfinished Swan, which seems very suited for young children, takes a bit of a dark turn during the final chapter, which doubles as the end credits. This includes a scene where you’re at a funeral and see a body inside a coffin. Jeez, guys. Even Disney had the good taste to not show Mrs. Bambi’s bullet-ridden corpse.
So the story is really good. Not as emotionally exhilarating as Journey, or as likely to make you think deep, introspective thoughts. Instead, the game invokes a relaxing innocence. This is the first game I’ve played in a long time that feels like a sophisticated family game. No joke. Unfinished Swan seems like it would be great for little kids. Nothing here is too challenging, and even some later spooky scenes set in a dark forest aren’t too scary for young children. If you have kids, I couldn’t strongly suggest any game more. Any form of media that’s narrative can appeal to very young children or adults is rare, but such stories in video games are really, really rare.
Uniqueness extends to the gameplay as well. In fact, the experience is so unique that if you don’t already know what it’s like, I suggest you quit reading now and just go buy it. You won’t regret it. My verdict on the gameplay? Fun, very simple, puzzles aren’t exactly puzzles, some frustrating elements, but everything here is light and breezy and could be finished in under four hours. There is absolutely no challenge at all here. None whatsoever.
Still reading? Okay, let’s talk level design. So the game starts you in a stark white room with no indication of what to do or where to go. A common experience among people I’ve talked with about Unfinished Swan seems to be people not realizing the game has begun. But it has. Each of the three chapters has a unique take on what exactly you have to do to navigate them. In the first world, everything is white, and you find your way around by throwing water balloons filled with ink. They splatter on objects, revealing their shape and size. Using these, you paint the terrain until you can find the path to move on. It’s quirky and neat, but sometimes annoying. Often times, I had to rely on spinning around in a circle and throwing ink at everything trying to figure out where I was supposed to go next. I called this the “octopus caught in a centrifuge method” and it did work, but seemed like it shouldn’t be necessary. Occasionally, you’ll spot swan tracks on the ground that point you in the right direction, and thank Christ for that, because otherwise I think I would still be trying to find my way out of the first stage.
In the second stage, objects finally have shadows, and thus you don’t need to heel-toe your way around anymore. Your ink balloons are also replaced with water balloons. The idea here is to navigate a vast city and castle with all kinds of tall buildings and exotic locations. And actually, this is the part of the game where I did get bored at times. The design here is fairly bland. The gutsy stylized gameplay of the first stage is almost completely gone, and in its place is the type of navigation puzzles that have been done to death in games, only these ones are much easier. Later in the stage, you have to use the water balloons to grow vines used for climbing walls. The problem with these are they tend to be a bit stubborn. Sometimes I couldn’t get them to go where they were supposed to go at all.
In one spot, you’re given a fire hose that you’re supposed to use to saturate a wall to grow the vines towards another platform. I spent several minutes trying and failing to get the vines to grow in that particular direction. They simply refused to do what they were told. So I said fuck it and made a mad leap for the platform, missed, and fell to my death. When I respawned back on the platform, not only were the vines willing to cooperate, but they had already grown where they needed to go. No clue at all what happened there. I’m guessing the game’s engine crapped out on me. That, or this is the developer’s way of advocating suicide to solve all your problems.
The final proper stage is set in a dark and spooky forest where you’re attacked by spiders if you don’t stay in well-lit areas. You deal with this by hitting lights with your balloons. At one point, you need to push around a little glowing ball of light (a moment that gave me Entropy flashbacks) to keep yourself safe. Later, you have to follow the ball of light down a river. After this, you have geometry puzzles that require you to create platforms by throwing the water balloons at specially marked walls. I have to say, the efforts to change-up the gameplay are well done in general, but no one mechanic seems to reach its fullest potential. After all this, you’re given a brief epilogue where you relive past moments in the game, while the credits appear on the walls. Afterwards, you can go back and look for hidden balloons that open up various unlockables.
I really liked Unfinished Swan, and other than some dead points in the second chapter, the gameplay here is fresh and well-paced. I ultimately recommend it because there’s nothing quite like it, and because it plays well. But there’s no challenge here. After telling a friends to get this for their six-year-old kid over the weekend, I found out that the kid easily beat the game in roughly the same time I did. I hear he totally loved it too. So yea, it’s not challenging. But neither was Journey. I would say both titles would be better described as game-like experiences. Where actual gaming elements almost seem to distract from the unfolding narrative. Both could also easily ride the art-house label if they so wished, but they don’t need to. They let their art credentials speak for themselves without battering you over the head with a copy of Rudolf Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception. If Unfinished Swan has any real failings, it’s that it feels like they didn’t do enough with the visual gameplay concepts. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the whole “you can’t see anything” direction of the first level could have been maddening without the type of restraint the guys at Giant Sparrow showed. Maybe. But I can’t shake the feeling that this could have very well been called the Unrealized Swan.
$14.99 never did hit that blasted swan with a water balloon in the making of this review.
The Unfinished Swan is Chick Approved, but only Xbox Live Indie Games get ranking on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. For now.