Wot I Think: The Swindle

Steampunk London-town heist caper The Swindle [official site] should feel comfortable in the shadows. It’s a sneak ’em up, with gadgets, set in self-contained randomised levels full of robotic guards, fatal falls and explosive traps. There are also clanking great computers that a skilled hacker can siphon cash out of and piles of cash. All of these elements are scattered willy-nilly around the interiors of the various slums, factories and warehouses you’ll guide your endless supply of miscreants through. Here’s wot I think.

The Swindle isn’t the kind of stealth game that particularly cares how much of a racket you make as you’re smashing windows and triggering mines. Guards have clearly marked sightlines, whether that be a couple of blocks in front of them or a swinging spotlight cast down from above. There are various types of guard, as well as policebots who arrive on the scene if the alarm is triggered, and each variety has specific behaviours, easy to learn and exploit.

Like Mark of the Ninja, The Swindle is a stealth game that provides all the information that you need to stay hidden up-front. The rules of each level are painted on top of it, in those lines of sight and even in the tile-based structure of the buildings. It’s possible to fail due to poor reactions or a botched walljump but most of the time you’ll fail because you get greedy and try to push yourself just a little too far.

The risk-reward loop is effective and the tools for challenging infiltrations and robbery are all in place, but The Swindle is undone by the structure of its campaign. The basic idea is similar to Klei’s Invisible, Inc. A countdown has started when the game begins, and you can undertake a limited number of missions before heading to the final showdown with whatever resources you’ve managed to grab along the way. It’s a bit like the journey to the Crystal Dome, right down to the hilarious sight of people grabbing a fistful of tokens that end up being worthless. In the Dome that was because the tokens were the wrong colour – in The Swindle, it’s because they end up in a heap next to your burglar’s corpse.

Your little avatars will die a lot. They have splendid names, as do the streets and building you’ll be infiltrating, and the portrayal of a ramshackle steampunk London is wonderful, thanks to the work of artist Michael Firman and composer Tobey Evans. Every machine looks as if it’s caught between madcap efficiency and total collapse, and the change in the music as the siren-topped copbots close in is perfect.

There is time enough for one hundred heists before the final encounter and every dead robber, ever failed attempt, leaves you with no extra cash in your stash. You’re trying to grab as much money as possible on each outing while also making it back to your airship pod in one piece. Gather naught but a few quid and you might as well have skipped the mission entirely but hacking your way to a grand is pointless if you end up dead at the bottom of a chute, with the money blanketing your corpse.

The 100-crime structure leads to a great deal of repetition. Every building is new, sure enough, but they’re all a combination of pieces plugged together and you’ll quickly recognise patterns. The first time I fell through a window, planning to follow the corridors underneath the main patrol route in some dingy hovel, I thought I was being smart. The tenth, fifteenth and twentieth time I did something similar, I was going through the motions. To survive the in-built repetition loop, The Swindle would need far more possibilities for emergent behaviour (of both items and entities) within its small spaces. As it is, there aren’t enough combinations to allow for the kind of improvised escapades that make playing Spelunky such a joy.

To make things worse, most of the interesting possibilities are hidden behind a system of unlocks. The Swindle doesn’t use skills and gadgets to provide new ways to approach problems – some problems are simply impassable until you have collected enough cash to unlock the correct solution. At its simplest, that means you’ll be unable to reach certain rooms until you’ve bought the double jump (which is then available to all of your burglars, no matter how many die) and unable to collect cash from computers until you’ve bought the hacking skill. Because of that, The Swindle feels more like a Metroidvania hunt for keys/powers than a Spelunky-like playground that contains more and more toys. Unlike a Metroidvania game there are no connections between levels, which are themselves jumbled fragments rather than cohesive places, and I found the combination of limited powers and impassable obstacles frustrating and tedious in the early stages.

The game does improve as you unlock abilities, particularly when the action moves to new areas. As explosive blimps and traps are introduced, there’s more room for chain reactions of unexpected cause and effect, as well as opportunities to trick enemies into assisting you in your crimes. There’s never quite enough happening though and by the end of my first successful run, I felt as if I’d seen everything the game had to offer.

There are opportunities to tweak your path through the unlocks, supporting your chosen playstyle whether it be rough and tumble, or ghostly silent. I think I was happiest when I took a cudgel to every robot in sight and scrambled through the levels, sneaking be damned. None of the abilities nor the composition of the levels ever excited me – I felt like I was playing a heisty adaptation of Spelunky, a slow and steady Spelunky-like, that had failed to capture any of the accidental farce or skillful improv that makes Spelunky such a delight to play, even years after release. In that sense, the graphics, music and overall style of the game almost become a detriment – they’re working so hard to convey a sense of fanciful fleet-fingered folly that the game itself almost entirely struggles to keep up with.

Starting anew means persevering through the first burglaries, when your skillset is as limited as the options available to you. By the time brainbots are showing up and you’ve earned the right to blow holes in the level, you’re likely to see a few scenes in which all of the tools brought into The Swindle align. Those sweet spots are surrounded by building after building of uneven challenges and unhappy coincidence that will give you newfound respect for the carefully controlled and curated procedural generation of Spelunky and Invisible, Inc., The Swindle’s closest recent bedfellows.

Right at the top, I said that The Swindle should feel comfortable in the shadows. Its design, both in the short-term of each level and the long-term of the countdown structure, places it in the shadow of two games that it can’t comfortably live with or escape. Even judged in isolation, however, The Swindle is a minor diversion at best, without the comic timing or cunning to turn anyone to a life of crime. A weekend of crime, perhaps, at most.

The Swindle is available now.

27 Comments

  1. RogerioFM says:

    I loved the game, the gameplay is just spot on, the skill system is amazing too, each skill have a purpose in the grand scheme. Sure, there is no story, at least no story worth mentioning, but the action is cool, the gameplay tight, the enemies interesting and the procedural generated levels are incredibly well designed, for, well, procedural generated levels.

    I also disagree regarding the repetition, yes, you’re dying and repeating heists, but each skill changes the way you must plan a heist that much, it’s always interesting in creating new situations for you. Also, each time your favorite thief dies you feel a stab in the gut. I guess, it needs more variety, but other than that, the art style and animation is simply incredible, if it had a proper story mode the game could be even better, but you know, as it is, the game is fantastic.

    • Xzi says:

      Sounds like they went kinda half-roguelike with it? The problem I see with that is: you have to wait through 100 missions to see whether you’ll ultimately win or fail, and unless you do multiple play throughs, there’s no way to know where they draw that line. Is it possible to win with only 50 missions completed successfully? 30? IMO it’s better to have win and lose states more ever-present with this type of game, instead of just at the end. It’s nice to not know when the end is coming, too, as opposed to telling you right upfront.

      It interests me enough to buy in a sale, but as the first paragraph suggests, everything seems a bit scattered in terms of mechanics.

      • RogerioFM says:

        Well, as any game of this type you get to play again and again to find a sound strategy or skillset, not unlike an XCom game, very feel people in the world completed the game successfully in a first play through, and this game is much easier than that, if you concentrate on stuff you need for a successfull heist, like bombs and hacking there is no way you won’t be able to win, yes, you might be able to win sooner after you are familiar with the game, but the fun is in the discovery, the game gives some hints about that you must have to do a successful heist, the rest of the skill just makes it easier. Also, you don’t have to wait a 100 of days, you can finish it sooner, considering of course you have all it takes to do the job.

  2. Buzznerd says:

    The game actually left me quite disappointed. I was expecting a fun modular stealth game a la Gunpoint or Mark, but the game instead feels like an action platformer with loose controls that desperately wants to be a stealth game. From my experience most problems are linear in their solution, and the levels are small, repetitive, and incredibly gated by the upgraded abilities. Gameplay before you’ve unlocked a mess of abilities usually involves waiting for guards to walk away from you, then knocking them out and waltzing to the next batch of guards, as was mentioned above.
    I’m not saying that it’s not a fun game (although I didn’t think it was very fun), I’m saying its a far cry from a stealth game, and comparisons to Mark of the Ninja, Invisible Inc, Gunpoint, or Spelunky simply draw attention to its bouquet of blemishes.

    • thedosbox says:

      Yeah, I’m disappointed by this, though I should have guessed when the Dev almost boasted on how difficult a game it was on twitter.

      • anHorse says:

        Agree with all of this and the RPS post itself

        -The randomisation isn’t very good in that the levels feel like bits and pieces shoved together rather than the levels of say Invisible inc or Spelunky where they could convincing pass as designed levels. Early on you can get stuck in rooms without the tools to climb out of them and that’s just rubbish design, punishing you for something you weren’t aware of going in
        -The stealth part just isn’t there at all, at most you’re waiting (the worst part of stealth) for guards and then knocking them over/trapping them in rooms, the sneak button is almost superfluous in how rarely it requires use
        -Guards themselves have very suspect detection, often it feels like they’ve either eyes in the back of their heads or that they turn immediately, with the vision flipping from right to left before the model has even rotated
        -Finally the controls, especially jumping, just aren’t tight enough for the game. It’s like if someone tried to make a stealth game in littlebigplanet

        The game is never difficult because the challenge presented requires thought to solve (as is the case in any good stealth), instead it’s difficult because you don’t have the tools yet or because the controls aren’t precise enough for the moment.

        I’d say that in my time only about 25% of my deaths were solely my fault, and that’s very bad for a stealth game. The absolute epitome of the problems with the game are the police, they’re supposed to be a punishment for being detected but one that can be overcome. However in game they often just manifest as blockers to the exit that can’t be avoided without tools that you won’t have unlocked yet

  3. Xocrates says:

    This game actually caused me to go on 2 am twitter rant about how much I dislike roguelikes in general. Mostly due to the frustrating early game loop the game has of not having the tools to get the money to get the tools.

    But what bothered me the most is that there is no reason I’m not allowed to replay a level.

    I believe I’ve seen an interview where Dan said that the 100 days limit is there to prevent players from just grinding levels for small amounts of money. The irony being that the reason for doing that is that failing is too punishing, and with the 100 days limit you don’t need to punish the players so harshly.

    In essence, the 100 days limit solves a problem that wouldn’t have existed if the game had been designed around the 100 days thing from the start. All it would require would be for you to be unable to get every upgrade in the 100 days and players would already play greedy enough just to get how many as they can.

    I have not played enough of the game to know whether I like it, or whether it is any good. I’m just sad that I feel it’s a game I would really really enjoy if it simply had the option to replay a level and actually get good at the game before moving forward.

    • Xzi says:

      I don’t think this really qualifies as a roguelike. The difficulty doesn’t seem to be at that level, nor can you truly progress through failure.

      • Xzi says:

        Rather, they were trying to put some roguelike elements in to it, but which elements they chose and how they were implemented don’t seem to fit well with the rest of the game’s design. I don’t think this is the last time we’ll see a developer fail to shoehorn in roguelike elements where they don’t necessarily belong with that genre becoming more and more popular as it has.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    I’ve played a little bit, and found that death comes a little too easily, but perhaps I just need to get the hang of it a bit more.

    It also seems to be very resource-intensive, my laptop gets hotter playing this than Dark Souls!

  5. qrter says:

    I bounced off the game hard in the first five minutes because the game explains almost nothing regarding controls, and I mean the most basic controls. There isn’t even the most basic of tutorials. So I go to the game’s Steam forum, and find I am not the only one who is missing a basic tutorial, and the developer responded saying the game is “.. a deliberate revolt against over-tutorialising in games” and that “playing the game is the best tutorial”.

    Surely the best tutorial is a well made tutorial, not kicking out the tutorial altogether? I have to give credit to the developer for taking the time to respond on the forums, there are few developers who will do this, but that response really stuck in my craw.

    • qrter says:

      html fail… :(

    • Boozebeard says:

      I honestly don’t know what you need a tutorial for? The controls are very simple, all you really have is the standard move jump and use controls. When ever you unlock an ability there is a help thing at the start of the next level that tells you exactly how it’s used. In terms of game play I don’t see how anything could be more obvious than don’t stand in the units bright yellow line of sight.

      • qrter says:

        I kind of like it when a game is upfront and clear about its most basic controls – these are the movement keys, this is the use-key, etc. Sure, it’s quick enough to gather that you’ll be using WASD, but then using ‘B’ for the use-key is less obvious on PC, and so on.

        I’m not saying I’d be losing sleep over it, but why be willfully obtuse about something so basic? What’s the point? In that light, rationalising it away with talk of ‘over-tutorialising’ just comes off as pretentious prattle to me.

        • iainl says:

          If you will insist on not playing with a joypad, the controls are listed on the key mapping screen. I guess that I’m so used to having to remap them for every single game that assumes I use my mouse in my right hand that it never occurred to me that people like to be told the defaults in a tedious introduction as well.

    • median says:

      I tried played Fallout 1 last year. Holy Christ, I had no idea what the hell was happening. Now if I’d played it when it *came out* I would have gleefully read the manual every night under my covers with a flashlight and planned out my strategy for the next days game. But adult me doesn’t have the patience to read through a manual. I wonder if I took a run through some youtube tutorials if I’d have a better chance… hmm… there’s an idea for this weekend.

      But, yeah, over-tutorialization? What the hell is that guy talking about?

      • qrter says:

        To be fair to the developer, I do see how some games (especially bigger budget titles) go too far with tutorials, and try to hold players’ hands too much, thereby taking away a sense of agency from the player. I can see why a developer wants to rail against that trend.. that said, please do tell me which button to press to open a shitting door in your game.

      • Premium User Badge

        Damien Stark says:

        “But, yeah, over-tutorialization? What the hell is that guy talking about?”

        It definitely is a problem in many games. I actually really enjoyed Assassin’s Creed 4, but I’m wary of ever playing another one because each one feels the need to force you to re-learn all the most basic controls through a 15-hour tutorial they call “the main story”, which won’t let you use most of those abilities until they’ve tutorialed them at you interspersed with long cutscenes.

        But I’d still prefer the tutorials exist, in an optional, skippable way. I think the recent Arkham titles handle this well – allow you lots of unexplained capabilities from the beginning, which you can either read the instructions for in a menu, or go to in-game “training simulations” that explain them.

    • Joe Clark says:

      I’d encourage you to persevere. Part of the joy of the game – for me, anyway – has been discovering the rules through play. Once you figure out the basic controls the learning curve becomes less steep and more fun.

      I personally like the tutorial approach – but even if you don’t, I’d suggest that it won’t hold you back for too long. Give it an hour.

  6. The Sombrero Kid says:

    I’ve rarelyrdisagreed with a WIT more, it’s a great game, the upgrades are well paced to feel like achievements, not incremental upgrades and they let you achieve significantly more, making them valuable. I’m doubly baffled by comparisons to games like spelunky and invisible Inc. Both of which were terribly balanced.

    • Xzi says:

      Invisible Inc and Mark of the Ninja are surely both better games, though, no? Spelunky I don’t enjoy as much, but I can see how people would like it.

      • Boozebeard says:

        They’re very different though really outside of the stealth theme. Invisible inc is turn based and grid based really not the same at all mechanically. Mark of the ninja is a bit more similar but it’s a campaign style games where this is a procedural quasi-rogue like endeavor.

      • median says:

        I haven’t played Swindle, but I did enjoy Mark of the Ninja; but after I’d played it through a few different ways, I was done playing it.

        Maybe procedurally generated games can’t offer a well-crafted single experience, but they can offer fresher challenges, forcing us to think on-the-fly because we’ve never faced quite this situation before. It stinks that they don’t let you replay levels, though, because I do like mastering concepts through repetition.

      • iainl says:

        I don’t know about the original poster, but I vastly prefer this to Mark of the Ninja, which felt too tiresomely prescriptive and lacking in humour.

  7. JaguarWong says:

    If anyone would like a contrary opinion, Chris Dolan’s review at Eurogamer could not be more different to this.

    I’m more in line with that than this, which judges the game for what it isn’t, rather than what it is.

  8. Joe Clark says:

    Always interesting to read a negative take on a well-received game.

    I’m only a few hours in so I’m no-where near beating the game nor seeing it’s full toolkit. I’ve also never played Spelunky (le gasp!). I get the impression Adam would rather be playing Spelunky. Which is fine really. We’ve all played games and not enjoyed them because we’d rather be playing something else. Human nature, init.

    I’d like to chip though and say that I shared a few hours last night with the Swindle, a friend and a motley collection of beers. And we had an absolute riot. We loved the game, the names, the hilarious deaths and fist-pumping getaways. I’ve not laughed harder at a game for quite a long time. That one time I fell a bit too far and lost £1600 within spitting distance of the shuttle. Classic. I mean you had to be there really, but wasn’t it?

    Whether I still feel the same after ten hours remains to be seen: but I’ll always have that joyous introduction.

    My gripes so far would be that the upgrade interface is awful (if you’re using a controller, at least), and that jumping can feel a bit lumpy and imprecise at times.