Roguelike indie games are in a bit of a weird spot when it comes to public perception. On the one hand, you have gamers that willingly welcome the brutal challenge they tend to bring to the table. On the other hand, there are plenty of folks out there who would prefer a swift kick to the groin than to have to play through another game with procedurally generated levels. Some titles, such as Spelunky, can win over even the staunchest critics of the genre. The Swindle, which shares some similar traits to Derek Yu’s brilliant work, is not one of those games. But is being uncompromising in your gameplay necessarily a fault?
Taking place in, ugh, Steampunk Victorian England, The Swindle is all about, well, swindling. Specifically, you are out to steal a highly advanced piece of technology known as The Devil’s Basilisk. Developed by Scotland Yard, The Devil’s Basilisk is a powerful surveillance device that once activated, will be able to prevent any and all crime. Naturally, as a thief, that would be bad for business. So, you and your merry band of ruffians have 100 days to break in and steal the equipment.
Normally, I’m not a huge fan of the Steampunk aesthetic. It’s a little too goofy looking for my tastes, and I wish that didn’t sound as pretentious as it does. However, I do have to say that the world Size Five Games created impressed me. The numerous designs for the thieves all have their own unique flourishes, which is great considering how often you’ll be moving through them. The assorted guards were also a treat to come across, even if I had to bash in their heads.
Every heist you attempt counts as one day, so the translation here is that you have up to 100 heists to successfully accomplish the main objective. In order to be able to advance to Scotland Yard, you’ll first need to plunder cash from an assortment of lower locations. You start off taking from low-income houses, but it’s only a matter of days before you’re breaking into banks in search of the next big score. Sometimes you’ll be able to hack into a few computers to ransack some bank accounts, while other times cash will just be tossed onto the ground like it’s nothing.
As in life in general, cash rules everything in The Swindle. Not only do you need to pay in order to unlock additional levels, but you’ll need to have a steady cash flow in order to purchase upgrades and abilities. Necessary upgrades such as hacking, double jumping and bomb planting are hidden behind paywalls, so you’ll have to be an effective thief in order to survive. Managing to keep one thief going through multiple heists is also key to building up your fortune. The more jobs you complete with one thief, the higher the payout will be at the end.
For the most part, the gameplay of The Swindle is sufficiently satisfying. The cash-based upgrade system makes sense for the game, and the amount of power-ups at your potential disposal can lead to several different ways of approaching one job. The problem, though, is that the rougelike elements tend to make things way more frustrating than they really should be.
One of the hallmarks of the genre is the fact that every individual level tends to be randomly generated. For the looting action found here, this should have been a slam dunk. Constantly changing locations means that no two jobs are ever the same. During my time with the game, I never encountered two levels that even seemed remotely similar. Whether it be the placement of security guards, or the long, maze-like buildings full of different cash amounts, the action never felt stale.
It’s once the difficulty begins to ramp up do you realize that the randomization of the levels can lead to some excessively unfair situations. A particular nuisance early on, I often came across levels that you simply couldn’t complete because you lacked the necessary upgrade. For example, during one of the early days of the game, I got stuck on the wrong side of a building. The way the building was set up, though, was that from where I was I couldn’t make it back to my aircraft by walking through the building. Instead, I would need to climb up the side of the building. However, I lacked the double jump ability that was necessary to reach the ledge. With no means of escape, I was forced to terminate my thief, which resulted in not only the loss of the profits from the job, but also another day was down the drain.
The randomly generated buildings are somehow both the best and worst aspect of The Swindle. When it works, particularly once you have the necessary abilities, it’s a thrilling game of cat and mouse, where your biggest enemy may just be your own greed. However, in the early-goings of the title, it tends to feel like Size Five Games is purposefully dicking you around each level. Don’t have the third hacking power-up? Good luck dealing with those security cameras that are directly positioned over each computer. Didn’t purchase bombs yet? Sorry, looks like you wasted another day breaking into a house that keeps everything underground for some reason.
I brought up the Spelunky comparison before, because while that game is certainly tough, you can do fairly well in it without having certain upgrades. The Swindle, on the other hand, basically tells you which upgrades you need to have in order to advance. So why even offer gamers the choice to choose which upgrade to buy, if you know they need to have certain ones? If Size Five Games was going to force me to constantly rely on bombs or being able to hack security doors, they should have just made acquiring upgrades a by necessity only process. Don’t offer me all of these options at once if most of them are useless until the end.
It also doesn’t help that on-top of the borderline insane difficulty spike, The Swindle falls victim to several technical gaffes. The worst of the bunch may just be the fact that sometimes the robot guards won’t run their routes unless you can see them. So, while you may know they are there, and that they should be patrolling, they won’t move unless you see them. For a game based around staying out of sight, this feels particularly egregious.
The suspect collision detection also proved to be a nuisance. There were a handful of times where I would strike a robot with my club, only for the stick to magically phase through them unharmed. Of course, these errors don’t apply to the A.I., who can strike you through windows, despite the fact that it takes you multiple shots to just break through the glass. If there was some sort of consistency, I wouldn’t feel as bothered by it, but this feels like yet another way the developer chose to artificially inflate the difficulty.
For better or worse, The Swindle is very much a product of its genre. For every gamer out there who will get a kick out of its uncompromising difficulty and steep learning curve, there will be another who is turned off by the harsh challenge. Personally, I stand somewhere between the two sides. I appreciate the challenge Size Five Games brought to The Swindle, and the unique world they created helped soothe my rage. However, I have a hard time shaking the thought that sometimes the randomly generated levels simply cannot be completed, no matter how good of a thief you are. It would be one thing if these levels popped up in the latter portion of the game, but the fact that they pop up early and often makes even approaching The Swindle hard to recommend.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the title, which we were provided with.
The uncompromisingly brutal difficulty of The Swindle will turn many off, but for those up to the challenge, the reward of thrilling thievery could very well be worth the effort.