Steal shit, get hit
A band of thieves in Steampunk Victorian London has been tasked with preventing Scotland Yard’s creation of the ultimate surveillance device: The Devil’s Basilisk. If they fail to swindle said device in 100 days (read: lives), thievery as we know it will cease to exist. Who wants to live without the risk of disappearing personal belongings?
Strap on your goggles, grab your billy club, and get ready to earn (illicitly, of course!) the pounds necessary to launch a full-scale heist on Scotland Yard. You might also want to grab your mouthguard that you so thoughtfully and pre-emptively bought to avoid stress-grinding your teeth into a milky paste. The Swindle can provide you with a satisfying serving of skullduggery and subterfuge, but don’t expect to steal candy from this baby.
The Swindle (PC [reviewed], PS3, PS4, Vita, Wii U, Xbox One)
Developer: Size Five Games
Publisher: Curve Digital
Release Date: July 28, 2015 (PC, PS3, PS4, Vita) / July 31 (Xbox One) / TBD (Wii U)
I’ll be honest, this review didn’t come out on release day because I couldn’t beat the fucking game in time. The Swindle starts off simply enough: the robotic police force that defends all of that sweet future funding projects a light in front of them indicating their line of sight. If you take a second to observe most obstacles and enemies, chances are you’ll understand how they’ll react in any given situation.
That’s the beauty of Size Five Games’ newest creation: through its hand-drawn art and deft understanding of visual cues, a glance at your surroundings is usually enough to convey all of the information regardless of your location. With a general lack of tutorials, it’s appreciated that there was a strong knowledge of mise-en-scène (ha! I’ve justified taking that one directing class now) involved in The Swindle‘s creation.
A successful robbery goes as follows: from a side-scrolling perspective, your scoundrel will arrive at a procedurally-generated location ripe for the plucking. With a combination of climbing, sneaking, and watching, you just might be able to walk away with a considerable sum of money. Small vaults/chests/containers are strewn about, but aren’t worth much. Computers (which are hacked through deliciously tense QTEs) are where you’ll want to focus your efforts, as they offer the best payday. If you’re spotted, you run the risk of dying and losing your character, though your purchased abilities are universal. The police will send increasingly deadly forces at you, but you can still get away if you reach your escape pod without dying.
For the first 40 days or so, I felt like I was building a slow, subtle mastery over my surroundings. Though I started by robbing the poor to work my way up, the ramshackle security systems were enough to keep me vigilant. The intricacies of wall-climbing became more familiar to me, and various upgrades to my thieves expanded the possible approaches available at each newly-generated building. I watched many of these swindlers embrace sweet death via bullets, failed hacking attempts on explosives, and oh-so-many plunges off of tiled roofs. Each time, a new one rose with a new outfit and name: Lafeyette Weedbruiser lasted six successful heists before a wheelchair-clad robot shot her down from a magnificent double-jump.
I eventually earned enough money to move onto the warehouse districts and the mansions. Each area was progressively more difficult but offered more lucrative lucre. I bought bombs, money-accruing bugs, and the ability to hack doors and security systems, feeling as though the Devil’s Basilisk would be mine with days to spare. It wasn’t until I purchased the right to try to pilfer from the casinos and banks that I hit an iron wall of challenge. Instead of skulking into buildings with multiple access points and hacking easily-reached computers for big bucks, I was relegated to picking up chump change and scrambling back to my escape pod before the tenacious security bots spotted me during one of my many slip-ups.
The titular swindle is actually the final stage, where you attempt to steal the AI device. You need to be prepared for the big event by having the right tools and upgraded thieves, but you also need to pay for entry. Saving up £400,000 is already hard enough; however, failure requires you to pay the whole amount for each successive attempt. Since you’ll be spending your hard-earned money on necessary upgrades like teleportation, triple-jumps, and being able to stop in the middle of a wall slide (seriously, buy this), that buy-in price makes an already difficult game feel ludicrously unfair. There are ways to buy extra days towards the end, but the price goes up each time.
That’s the game over screen, which I saw at the end of multiple attempts at all 100 days. I’m not one to balk at a challenge, but the finite lives combined with the money requirement of the last level feel like an artificial attempt to gate willing players away from the ending. I have no doubt that somebody is on Twitch at this very moment, controlling The Swindle with Donkey Konga drums ghosting through the final stage, but the vast majority of players will mostly find the latter half of the game frustrating. I think it’s telling that most of the coverage I’ve read has only shown screenshots of the first few stages.
There’s also the weird bloom effect that permeates some of your jaunt through London. While it makes sense to have your vision obscured when the alarms are blaring and the lights are flashing red, occasionally the screen is bloomed beyond belief and you can’t discern the minutiae on the screen. I’ve committed almost-perfect crimes, hacking security systems and clearing out guards, only to land on an explosive I could barely see. Get used to seeing starbursts of paper money explode from your fresh corpses for the slightest of transgressions. The collision on spike pits also is a bit wonky, and I’ve died a fair few times just for standing close to one.
Depending on the kind of player you are, you might just start finding exploits to accelerate your progress. I’m not all that ashamed to admit that I took advantage of bugs, which seem to go against the whole risk/reward theme of The Swindle. If you get close to a computer, you can place a bug that will siphon cash to your account at a rate of £/second. This goes directly to your account, so you can avoid having to run back to the escape pod to keep whatever you earn. The thrill of sneaking off with a sack full of cash is somewhat diminished when you can place a bunch of bugs and wait by the exit, but I found myself relying on this method in order to actually reach the Devil’s Basilisk.
Since hacking is accomplished via directional QTEs, you can just spin the stick in a circle without punishment (unless it’s a mine, which will explode upon an incorrect input). I only did this once out of curiosity, but it feels like an unnoticed exploit. Hacking is my favorite part of the game, so I couldn’t cheat myself out of that experience without feeling like a sad sack. For the record, I played on a gamepad, which was much more comfortable than the keyboard layout.
The Swindle is nowhere near an entirely negative experience. It’s a festival of moments, of anecdotes filled with failures and smiles. I found myself holding my breath as I hacked a computer with just enough time to dodge three heavy guards coming my way, jumped over two electricity traps, clung to a wall to let a patrol pass, and bombed myself a new escape route. These pockets of perfection kept me hooked, and made me boot up The Swindle again and again in order to preserve this world of rogues. That, and my dedication to you guys. Now, the Devil’s Basilisk is for all of us to share. You’re goddamned welcome.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the developer.]