Monday, 4 March 2013

REVIEW - The Unfinished Swan (PS3)

There is an ongoing (it would seem) discussion in popular culture regarding video games. Can they be considered art? It is a fairly tedious discussion of which I will save you all the trouble by stating the answer. Yes, yes they can. If dancing, poetry and, especially, movies are considered art then video games must be too. Of course some games, like movies, are more arty than others. It's A Wonderful Life would probably be considered to have more artistic merit than, say, Bad Boys 2. And a game like The Unfinished Swan will certainly convince a lot more people of gaming's contribution to cultured media than Saints Row The Third. Indeed any game that starts off with a blank (read – completely white) screen with no clue as to what to do, clearly slides itself into the art game camp, as well as showing some serious balls too. It only takes a few seconds of tapping the various buttons until you locate the 'fire' button and a black ball arcs from your cross-hair. It makes contact with a surface and with a messy splatter, covers the area with black paint. It then clicks that you must reveal the world around you using this paint, identifying the walls, pathways and objects in the world around you. Welcome to The Unfinished Swan.

I swear, modern graffiti is getting less creative. Somebody get a mop

This game tells the story of a young boy named Monroe. Monroe has lost his mother to the vice like grip of Death itself, and is now being relocated to an orphanage. Being the sensitive types they only allow him to keep one of his mother's many unfinished paintings. It is unclear why his dear old mum was unable to complete a single painting, maybe she had Alzheimer's, or a very short attention span. Anyway, he chooses.. wait for it.. The Unfinished Swan. Suddenly the swan comes to life, half missing neck and all, and disappears through a magical door. Having nothing better to do than face the inevitable abuse waiting for him in the orphanage, Monroe decides to follow suit, and enters the doorway. The rest of the story involves a child's story tale, told by a, rather naff, female narrator and concerns the exploits of a lonely king and the kingdom he once ruled. The story is pretty straightforward and child-like, but keeps you engaged throughout its short duration. As well as the narrator, story boards can be located by hitting them with paint, revealing a page from the book which is read to you in the manner of an over protective mother reading to a 2 year old.

It's time to fire the gardener. The Unfinished Swan's kingdom
 is covered in these climbable vines

So you begin, throwing projectiles with reckless abandon, and splattering everything around you with black paint. Walls, fences, statues, frogs, tables and staircases, nothing is safe from your black fluid. Pretty soon the once invisible world begins to resemble the beaches near the epicentre of the BP oil spill. The effect is captivating, with the landscape taking shape before your very eyes. Just turning around to see where you have come from, and where you have painted is visually very impressive. Everywhere you look could be taken as a screen-shot and hung on your wall, such is the artistic nature of the game. Of course, the whole game is not just this black on white scenario, that would be stretching it too far. No, after the first stage, shadows and definition are added, making the world a much easier place to navigate. Before long other colours are added such as blue water and golden footprints. These footprints mark the way should you get lost, though it is actually quite hard to do so as the levels are fairly linear. The titular swan pops up occasionally to quack encouragement and let you know where you are supposed to be gong.

Getting your hose out in public is encouraged in The Unfinished Swan

Also adding colour to the environment are balloons on strings,. These vary in colour, sometimes even invisible until hit with paint, and are The Unfinished Swan's collectable items. Each level has a set amount to find and accumulating them works like currency of sorts, allowing you to buy items such as concept art and a water hose from the menu screen's shop. Many of these are unlocked once you finish the game anyway, rendering them pretty pointless, but it's a nice addition none-the-less. 

The issue is that it doesn't feel very cohesive. One minute you are throwing black paint around an invisible world, another hurling water balloons at plant life. Later you will be moving light balls through a dark forest and even throwing down two points to create 3d objects. Each of these parts are certainly inventive and engaging, but they are also short and not well joined. It often feels as though each chapter was created by developers independently of one another and put together to make a whole game. Movement in the world also feels slightly ungainly, especially when you begin scaling walls via the vines. It feels as if you are controlling a camera rather than a solid character in the game world, adding an unwelcome level of detachment. Monroe also moves incredibly slowly, meaning it takes forever to walk short distances, though I think if he moved at the speed of the protagonist in games like Quake or Doom, you would probably be able to finish the game in under an hour. The puzzles on offer here are not very challenging either, merely consisting of hitting a few red switches or following some vines to reach a high place. There is nothing in the entire game to make you stop and scratch your head.

The world looks even more amazing when more colour is used

The main problem with The Unfinished Swan is its length, or lack thereof. I finished the game in about 2 hours. It is also a one trick pony, as I came back to the game the following day in order to locate the hidden balloons I had missed, and the magic had gone. I may come back to it again one day in the future, maybe to show my future grandchilden what 'crazy' games we got back in the day, while they play Holographic Call of Duty 19. But I certainly have no burning desire to play it again any time soon.

While I applaud both the developers and Sony for trying something different, The Unfinished Swan cannot escape the fact that it is a short experience rich in artistic merit and experimentation, but lacking any deep gameplay, challenge, or variety. It is certainly a pleasant journey while it lasts, and the opening chapter is highly original and daring. Unfortunately the game slips into standard first person puzzles that have been done before and to a much higher standard. At a lower price it would be worth buying just to see what indie games can offer over the more commercial titles, but at the higher end of the PSN price range (£9.99 / $15) you have to seriously ask whether 2 hours of gameplay can justify this. I would, unfortunately, have to say no.

After 2 decades of waiting, A sequel to Duck Hunt finally arrives

The Unfinished Swan is a curious experiment in game design that initially impresses, only to lose its way over the short duration. It's a nice way to spend a couple of hours, but it is nowhere near as inventive or magical as some would have you believe. Stick with the far more engaging world offered in ThatGameCompany's epic 'Journey', or if you fancy some head scratching first person puzzles, look no further than the two Portal games. I am afraid I am too old for bed time stories.

The Good

  • Genuinely captivating opening chapter
  • Crisp and minimal graphics with excellent paint effects
  • Reasonable engaging while it lasts

The Bad

  • The story is wafer thin and the narrator is slightly irritating
  • The other mechanics are nowhere near as memorable
  • Very, very short
  • Absolutely zero replay factor
  • Expensive for what boils down to an extended tech demo

Developer : Giant Sparrow
Available On : PS3
Price : £9.99