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Just in case you thought indie platformers were beginning to get a bit too kitschy for their own good, here's The Swapper, a game designed to absorb you into its cold, disturbingly serene world and disarm you with a blend of unique storytelling and fantastic puzzle design. Look out Braid.
The Swapper begins with your character, an unnamed, entirely silent astronaut crashing on a desolate space station where something horrible has obviously occurred. Armed with "The Swapper", a mysterious cloning device that seems to be in the center of all of the The Swapper's drama, you'll travel around the nearly uninhabitable Theseus station, gathering clues from 'memory terminals' and interacting with a mysterious woman with a seemingly bipolar personality (more like a tri-polar personality), all in the hopes to be able to put together a picture of what exactly happened to all of the people who used to work on Theseus, and hopefully figure a little about your own mysterious identity in the process. Oh yeah, and there are talking rocks.
So, everything is set up purposefully for some kind of grand twist, and yes, the developments themselves are often surprising, but the plot is much more of a philosophical, slow-burning one than the Bioshock-esq premise might initially indicate. Though the plot is very entertaining and brain-teasing over the course of the game, its true intricacies and pleasures are most likely going to be enjoyed mostly on message boards and discussions with friends. This is definitely not a knock on the game, but I just feel that its just a little too brainy for its own good. Once again, if you like Braid's philosophical style of plot, you'll love this, but if that felt too un-affecting and pretentious for you, than this probably won't do much for you either.
But what of all that puzzle gameplay that people have been raving about? What of The Swapper device itself? What's interesting is that, though this is considered Metroidvania, there is no real progression to the game's bag of tricks. Once you get the ability to swap, you've gotten every ability the game has to offer. This sounds like a bad thing, but it isn't: the puzzles are so deceptively simple, but yet brilliantly difficult. The game's focus is laser-precise, and the puzzles are insanely consistent, and they're never frustrating, unlike some of the puzzles from the aforementioned Braid, where figuring out the solution was only half of the challenge, and wrestling with dodgy jumping challenges and perfect timing was the other.
Perhaps most impressive of all, though, are the game's visuals, which are all hand-made, from either household objects or clay. This lends the game a very distinctive aesthetic design that helps add to the game's unique atmosphere. Yes, 'beautiful void' space stations are typical in Metroidvania style games, but The Swapper still manages to stand out. Helping the atmosphere in critical, but indeed very subtle ways, is the game's fantastic score, which picks up at all the right moments, and stays ambient and moody otherwise. The Swapper's world feels fleshed out, and the characters finish up the story much more nuanced and complete than I expected. In the end, it all adds up to one of 2013's best and most mind-expanding titles that uses morality in interesting ways and challenges players to think about what it really means to be alive and conscious, all the while also challenging you with brilliant puzzles. Even as games like The Last Of Us are being praised for being an advancement of the medium, The Swapper is a reminder that the medium has always been capable of mature, deep stories: you just have to know where to look.
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