Have you ever had that conversation with gamers of a certain age that revolves around how games used to be hard? Not artificially made to feel difficult when they’re really just unbalanced but actually hissy fit throwing, controller-destroying hard? The kind that used to give you all the tools you needed to succeed and made it clear that any failure to do so was entirely your own fault?
Enter The Swindle, Size Five Games procedurally generated thief-’em-up. Set in the weird and wonderful world of a cyber/steam-punk Victorian London, you play the role of an unnamed kingpin sending hordes of career criminals into certain death in the search for other people’s money. Your ultimate goal is to breach Scotland Yard itself, home of the Metropolitan Police, and to seize the Basilisk, a security network with the sole aim of making all crime impossible when it comes online in 100 days. Your job (or at least, your minion’s job) is to pinch, steal, thieve and grab enough cash from numerous heists to allow yourself a shot at the Basilisk itself. You will fail at nearly every attempt.
You see, The Swindle is deceptively simple at first glance but basic, even rudimentary controls and a ‘break in, steal money, get out’ mentality hides the fact that this game is absolutely hard as nails. With the need to accumulate money as quickly as you can, you’ll find yourself tempted to charge in without properly planning and this is nearly always fatal. Despite plenty of modern games being incredibly forgiving with players, The Swindle will punish you for not thinking clearly, for rushing to act and for being greedy. It will also punish you just because it can.
Due to its randomly generated levels, you’ll inevitably run into heists that you just can’t win because you haven’t got the necessary items. It’s almost gut-wrenching having to walk away from a major heist because you didn’t bother to get a certain item or upgrade but this is all part of the core experience. Faced with an array of teleporters, hacking tools, physical upgrades and more, deciding what to purchase can be daunting at first but on repeat runs, you’ll gradually learn each items ways. Depending on how you play, some will be more useful than others. I personally never quite got the hang of using the Steam Purge cover system but maybe you will.
A big part of The Swindles charm is that as a game with one foot thoroughly in the old school; it doesn’t hold your hand and often leaves it up to you to discover its secrets. With no tutorial outside of the occasional contextual hint, it trusts you to not only guide yourself but to also learn from your many, many mistakes. The first time you misjudge a jump and drop into the spike pit below or trap yourself in a dead-end is an intense mix of shock and laugh-out-loud humor.
After playing the game on and off for a month, I’m still finding new surprises and shocks with every play through. Enemies you’ve never tangled with are always exciting encounters and even basic robots will surprise you if you don’t pay the requisite amount of attention and due care to them. I’ve lost numerous thieves under the simple BobbyBots truncheons and every damn time it’s been my fault. At my last count, I’ve watched over 35 thieves die due to my stupidity and it can be especially galling to watch a beloved thief go to the wall but it never feels unfair or forced. In fact, The Swindle is truly one of the few games this year that you could unashamedly call fun. It’s the ultimate ‘just-one-more-go’ game in the way it sucks you in and offers quick blasts of fun and mayhem.
Outside of the gameplay, the world of The Swindle is a beautiful mix of influences – gears and cogs sit side by side with advanced AI and everything is draped in a gorgeous, grimy aesthetic without looking like a knock-off Gotham. Like a Terry Pratchett novel made real, the world is as much of a character in it’s own right as any of its inhabitants and I can only hope Marshall returns to it in future endeavors. Neo-London feels alive and quintessentially British with enough in-jokes to satisfy even the most churlish Brit gamer without alienating other international audiences.
Sitting alongside the design is an utterly wonderful soundtrack composed by Tobey Evans. It manages to feel epic without being pompous or overwrought and is bound to be a staple of my playlists for years to come. Violins and orchestral flourishes sit side by side with techno elements and what sounds potentially dire on paper becomes something magical in reality.
I’m not going to lie, I was nervous about playing The Swindle. I’ve been following its development for a while now and Size Five Games are essentially a one man band but thankfully all those fears were for naught. Dan Marshall and his creative collaborators Michael Firman and Tobey Evans have crafted a masterful little title and shown that it isn’t the size of your budget or team that’s important but the way you use it. Clever, daft and full of heart, The Swindle doesn’t wallow in pseudo-drama or weigh itself down with stupid tropes; it just lets itself be what it is and takes its place amongst the pantheon of brilliant, eccentric British games.
You can get The Swindle today for Steam, PS3, PS4 and PS Vita and on July 31, 2015 for for Xbox One. A Wii U edition is in the works but pending a release date.