Game Reviews - Reviews

The Swapper (Facepalm Games, PS3/PS4/PS Vita/Wii U)


If the Sci-Fi genre has taught us anything, it is that there is nowhere lonelier than space. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock was left to drift through the desolate vastness of the cosmos, accompanied only by the voices inside her head. In Moon, Sam Rockwell was trapped in the purgatory of a facility on the other side of that titular heavenly body, trying to fend off madness through a humdrum routine of repairing equipment. That film’s spiritual predecessor, Silent Running, dealt with the same themes and a similar concept: Bruce Der, the sole remaining crewmate on a spacecraft, struggles to keep his mind together by developing a relationship with three little robots. It is much sadder than it sounds.

This idea is brought right to the fore in The Swapper, where side-scrolling puzzle solving is mixed with metaphysics to startling effect. From the outset the overbearing tone is of isolation. Your engineer character, who is sort of like a mini Isaac Clarke, must investigate an outpost not too dissimilar to the planet Zebes from Super Metroid (Nintendo, SNES). The first thing that strikes you is the stunning graphics. Some of the caverns resemble the salt-encrusted bottom of the ocean while others are rich with vegetation. If they look like they have a three-dimensional tactility to them it is because the designers made the original models out of clay before turning them into digital form. This approach certainly makes for more interesting viewing than the naff, seen-it-all-before graphics that you get in many modern releases, and there will be times when you will stop to marvel at the multi-layered passageways and shafts surrounded by inky blackness.

The architecture and barely functioning machinery suggest that people once lived here but that was a long time ago. For reasons that we will not reveal here, these areas must be navigated in order to locate power cores to fuel teleports to further areas. It’s your standard videogame mechanic, really, but it’s given a fresh spin by the fact that you have a neat gadget to create clones of your avatar to access higher ledges, navigate traps, stand on pressure pads to open doors and so on. On paper, none of this sounds particularly original but is in fact makes for deeply affecting gameplay. Firstly, the way in which the puzzles and challenges mutate and spiral up and out in different directions is incredibly inventive. After you are taught the basics of the controls, in a manner as subtle as in Super Meat Boy (Team Meat, Multi), you will find yourself doing increasingly wilder and creative things with your clones. For example, to navigate a long tunnel stretching upwards like a chimney, you can create a clone in thin air, zap to said clone, create another one, zap to it and so forth to string together a human ladder. As in the equally unsettling indie Limbo (Playdead, Multi), trial and error is key to the learning process. The emphasis on error, as you will die a lot, if “die” is the right word for losing a clone. Some of the conundrums are truly brain-bending but the feeling of achievement when you unlock them is deeply satisfying.

However, what really impresses about The Swapper is something quite different, a thematic concern that places it right up there with the philosophical conceits central to classics such as Bioshock (2K, Multi), namely the meaning of existence itself. That may sound like a grandiose claim but there is an ontological cost to creating clones. Do you lose a tiny part of yourself each time you create one of the clones – or cause one to die? If you swap to a clone, what happens to your original consciousness, and for that matter, your original body? Are you you? Or a clone? Or a clone of a clone? You could fall into an infinite regress thinking about this but at least it causes you to think at all. The Swapper has a sad and eerie tone that only become more sad and eerie as the plot closes around you like a vice, so much so that you may feel as if you are taking part in a classic slice of Sci-Fi as you are sucked deeper and deeper into this world, and no doubt further and further away from your original self. Ross Thompson