With indie games there’s usually a tradeoff to be made between game mechanics and story telling. This is not to say you can’t have both, indeed there have been many good indie games that have demonstrated exactly that, more that a game with a limit amount of resources needs to pick one to focus on lest both aspects suffer from a lack of attention. I tend to prefer those that focus on story first, mostly because developing new game mechanics is fraught with risk, but I’ve begun to enjoy those that bring new and innovative game mechanics to their chosen genre and The Swapper does just that.
The Swapper takes place in the furthest reaches of space aboard the space station Theseus. It begins oddly for you, the unnamed protagonist, seemingly trapped inside an escape pod that’s then launched to the surface of the planet you were orbiting. Thankfully you land at one of the ground bases that were established earlier and are able to make your way down to one of the teleporters to get yourself back up there. Before you do that however you discover an incredible device, one capable of producing clones of yourself and, should you desire, swap your consciousness into them. Why such a device exists and why you were sent to the surface still remain a mystery to you but upon returning to Theseus it becomes clear that there’s a lot more to this story than you might first think.
In terms of graphics and art style The Swapper is unique in that much of the assets and textures are actually hand crafted from clay rather than created digitally. This gives everything a rather strange level of stylized realism that’s not disconcerting but definitely gives it an unique vibe. Some of the areas have a distinct Trine feel to them (most notably the garden areas) although the whimsy was replaced with a sense of foreboding loneliness, even after I had made contact with others. The soundtrack is also quite amazing with sounds ranging from a quiet space ambiance to sorrowful tracks that seem to rise and fall at the perfect moments. They also get bonus points for muting all the sounds when you’re in the vacuum of space something far too many game developers forget to do.
The Swapper is a puzzler at heart, one that introduces an unique (as far as I can tell) mechanic to make some decidedly challenging puzzles. They all center around “The Swapper”, a device that allows you to create up to 4 clones of yourself and, should they be in line of sight, swap to them. The clones mirror your movements perfectly unless they’re blocked by terrain or other obstacles which means that many of the puzzles will be spent figuring out where to place them perfectly so that when you move towards your final goal everything falls into place. That’s how it starts initially at least and it doesn’t take long for them to start throwing more obstacles in your way that make the challenges so much more intriguing.
The first spanner in the works is the addition of blue and red lights. Blue lights block your ability to create clones in the region that they illuminate but you can still swap to them should you be in line of sight. Red light stops you from swapping with clones you’ve created but you can still create them. Initially they’re just put in locations that means you’ll have to maneuver yourself around in order to do the swaps you need but eventually they’re positioned so that even just getting all your clones in the right spot requires some lateral thinking. They even start overlapping lights creating lovely purple areas where you can’t do anything which makes for some really annoying puzzles.
Things start to get all sorts of whacky when they introduce gravity reversal into it. These are in the form of little floor panels that allow you to swap the direction of gravity for your character or the clone that’s on them. Since it’s not global this means you can have clones in differing forms of gravity and should they run over another gravity changing panel it will swap for them as well. When I first encountered this I didn’t think much of it, the earlier puzzles certainly weren’t very challenging, but the last few were really quite challenging. Of course once you get into the right mindset they start to become a bit easier as you recognise the tricks they want you to use but the first one of them had me second guessing myself for a good 20 minutes.
Facepalm Games also gets a lot of brownie points for including a map and teleport system that allows you to traverse the ship quickly. This is good because The Swapper is one of those games where progress is determined by how many puzzles you’ve solved and, should you miss a few, you could find yourself needing to backtrack to find them so you can get enough orbs to continue. They also cheerfully highlight any areas with unsolved puzzles something which is an absolute godsend that I hope I see replicated in other indie puzzlers. Needless to say they’ve put a lot of effort into taking out the crap in order to focus better on the story and mechanics which I’m sure we can all appreciate.
Surprisingly there were no game breaking bugs to report, nor any minor quibbles that I took issue with. Due to the style of game there is a bit of room for emergent game play to occur which can lead to puzzle solutions that probably weren’t intended and that could lead to some frustration for players. I know that when I found a couple ways of doing things my thought process was locked into solving them in that way and the actual solution didn’t rely on those quirks at all. This becomes less of an issue as the game progresses as the latter puzzles really only have one way of doing them but should you find yourself caught in a thought loop remembering this fact could save you a lot of time.
The story of The Swapper is incredibly engaging being told through snippets that you find on consoles, via communicating with the Watchers and through the crazed ramblings of the only other person you come into contact with. Usually this kind of fragmented telling gets to me but this had a definite structure to it, guiding you through the various pieces of information to form a story that’s really quite incredible. The fact that it all ties together neatly at the end also deserves praise as it would be far too easy to leave this open ended, begging for a sequel.
The Swapper is an intriguingly curious game, one that combines a unique puzzle mechanic with an engrossing story to form an experience that is truly like no other. Everything about it, from the art to the soundtrack to the gameplay, all have their own distinct feel about them and the fact that they all merge together in one seamless package makes the result so much greater than the sum of its individual components. It’s one of those games that really demands to be played rather than explained, even if you’re not a fan of the puzzler/indie genre.
The Swapper is available right now on PC for $14.99. Total game time was 4.5 hours with 0% of the achievements unlocked.