The Swindle review

Reviews Xbox One Reviews

I must admit, I like the steampunk scene. I’m not really suited to it, being a little too tubby and I don’t like tea or gin, but some of the music is pretty good, in a novelty sing-a-long kind of way. Seriously, have a listen to Steam-powered Giraffe or The Tiger Lillies. The Swindle, a steampunk, heist-based, Rogue-cum-Spelunky alike should offer me slightly more in the way of openings into the steampunk scene, right? Perhaps, or perhaps not.

The Swindle, developed by Size Five Games, is a level based heist-a-like. If real life heists were like this, there’d be no burglaries, anywhere, ever. The idea of the game is pretty simple, very original and quite ingenious. Your livelihood, the felonious art of robbery, is under threat by the all-seeing Basilisk creation. This intelligence device will make the grifter’s and pilferer’s existence extinct overnight. You have 100 days to stop it and an Airship full of bombs, hacking skills, and security passes to buy to help you on your way.

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You are left then, to sneak around a maximum of 100 levels to try to gather enough cash, resources and well, cash, to face the final level and beat the Basilisk. Standing in your way are the cream of security bots and devices. Wander around each level, break into the building, avoid or take out the security, hack the computers and steal the cash. Simple, yes?

This all sounds easy enough. You’ll soon learn that the life of a felon is fraught with danger, capture and death. The game starts you off robbing the slums of the city, with the aim to progress through the next few districts, including Warehouses, Casinos and the Basilisk itself. The slums are low-risk, low-reward hovels mainly, with scant security and meagre returns. Add to this the fact that your light-fingered thief needs to learn a few things, or more importantly, earn enough cash to buy upgrades before he or she can glean the most from the job at hand. At first this is a bit of a slog, especially as the levels are procedurally generated and you might find initially that there are many parts of the buildings you cannot get to, get into or complete fully. On one early level, I was presented with a locked door, that I didn’t have the necessary door hack skill bought for and an over-hanging ledge that I couldn’t jump and cling to, to get into the building another way. Frustrating and a waste of a ’day’.

The mistake I made more or less straight away was to treat this as a standard platformer. My main advice on this would be; don’t. There’s no timer on these levels. Take your time. Explore. Be sneaky. Have a measured approach to each level and don’t rush in. It’s not that type of platformer. Get the idea? This sneaky task is made that more difficult by the patrolling bot security. These have a handy yellow “view” bar, letting you know when you need to duck out of sight or to hide behind a door. Sneak up behind them and bash them into insensibility. While this is simple enough, the procedurally generated levels make that task sometimes impossible. What do I mean by this? I’ll explain.

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In order to become more proficient at your chosen vocation, you need to be able to buy skills. These are bought and acquired in the Airship between levels. They are not cheap. Initially, your little tea leaf cannot hack computers for cash, only pick up loose wads left handily lying around. It doesn’t take long to collect the cash you need for the hack skill, but after that, the costs of upgrading these skills gets a tad on the expensive side. This is where the game becomes immensely frustrating. There were many levels where I either couldn’t make any financial progress due to the level design, or discovered that windows do not protect you from being spotted by the security drones if you happen to be wall-sliding past accidentally as you can’t see what’s below.

This brings me nicely on to the controls. I’m not sure if I expected too much in game controls, or whether I seem to dip out and get controllers that are over-sensitive or I’m too quick for the button mapping, but the control response on The Swindle is one of my biggest bug-bears. You can jump, even buy a double or triple jump, but it’s all a waste if it doesn’t do it consistently. I lost count of the number of times I was spotted because the jump action simply didn’t do what it said on the tin, or did it but massively over-egged it and landed me on a wall, on a ledge or in a window that I wasn’t even aiming for.

These vantage points are all beautifully drawn however, and it’s hard not to get drawn in to the whole steampunk style. The dark-lined sprites remind me of a Gorillaz cartoon-style character and compliment the scenery perfectly. The Victorian parallel scrolling backgrounds reflect the weather too, so if you can see that gorgeous full moon, you can guarantee that it won’t be raining. The whole steampunk vibe is driven by the graphics really, with the audio being little more than a background addition to the main game. Nice graphics alone can’t hide the annoying little flaws in The Swindle though. I ran through the 100 days and didn’t grab a single achievement on the first pass, I’m more than half-way through a 2nd 100 day pass and still I’m left bare in the gamer-points department. I suppose it just carries on the game’s theme of having to graft for your rewards. It doesn’t stop me coming back for more though and that is the game’s real charm. There’s also an element of deciding when to risk what you’ve already got in order to get some more. Do you, or do you play it safe?

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The Swindle is a title that’s hard to score. On the one hand, the lovely graphics and excellent story set the game up to be a smashing little heist-a-like, but on the other, it’s let down by the oft wonky controls and the cliff-like difficulty curve initially. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lasting game here, if only because you’re working so damn hard to just grab even one achievement and I found myself thinking,’ OK, maybe one more heist’. There’s the frustration of the cost of acquiring skills that you really need from the outset and that doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that you’re up against it all from the start. There are nice touches though, like the fact that you have no life limits for example and that you can escape should you need to, but I can’t help feeling that the difficulty curve spoils the game somewhat and the cost of all that tech is prohibitive to any real progress on the game from the start.

Thanks to Xbox and Size Five Games for their support.

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A lifelong gamer, staring at the wrong side of the forties, I'm a huge Halo series fan. Started gaming way back in the days of the Amstrad CPC464. Midlander through birth, married with son, COD virgin, so be gentle. Twitter: @PhilK_TiX