The Swindle is primarily the work of Dan Marshall and some close colleagues through Size Five Games, but due to the efforts of UK publisher Curve Digital has rapidly changed up from being another intriguing PC release to plotting a multi-platform arrival. The inclusion of the Wii U eShop is promising, as this is shaping up to be a particularly fun title in 2015.
It's a project that's been on, off and then on again in its development history, yet the concept isn't fragmented or messy as a result. If anything, it's both extremely simple and surprisingly complex, blending a basic concept with enough variables to keep things interesting; it's also got a humorously mean-spirited nature, taking delight in fostering uncertainty and ruining your day.
A key aspect of The Swindle is that levels are randomly generated, albeit there's structure in terms of eventual progression through the campaign. Your job is to run a series of daring heists to accumulate cash, trying to avoid your protagonist getting caught in the middle of a theft or killed; if they die, another takes their place. There's a simple economy evidently at work - you steal as much as possible and spend that cash on gadgets and upgrades, or for the right to rob a higher level of building with all of the risks that entails. There's some jeopardy to keep you focused on progress, too, as there's a limited number of days in which to advance to the final target building - in a Pikmin-esque twist failure to make good time could wreck a whole playthrough.
The demo we played focused on one particularly sizeable layout, generally packed with obstacles and environmental features to keep us on our toes. The protagonists have a fairly weighty feel to them - movement feels like a blend of that in SteamWorld Dig and Teslagrad - and you can do a mix of wall hanging, double and triple jumping; some of these will be unlocked or bought with progress. As a primary task is avoiding patrolling robots, you also have a basic melee attack with which to whack them over the back of the head. The animation and art style is excellent, evoking the project's steampunk concept and having subtle nuances that add to the humorous aspect at play.
With the environments being procedurally generated, this game quickly shows itself to be one that emphasizes practice, quick reactions and a sharp mind. The core goal is to find terminals and hack them for cash, which is simple enough, but the various systems in place spice up the basic premise. In addition to rather dumb steampunk robots searching with a visible flashlight, there are dangerous factors such as drones and landmines to worry about, making the plotting of a route the biggest challenge. The aim is to go unspotted for as long as possible, but once stealth fails this quickly turns into an action game - do you push forward to steal more before the police arrive? Head straight for the exits, jump onto your airship and keep your winnings from the heist? It'll all vary based on initial instinct.
The tools at your disposal will greatly affect your thinking, which plays into the primary hook of earning cash to upgrade your capabilities. In the demo build we played the key items at our disposal were a bomb and then a remote detonator. The detonator needed line of sight to set off landmines, which was useful for taking out guards but also impractical if a hacking terminal was near the mine; if you blow up a terminal you wipe out the prospective income it holds. Get it wrong with either item and you could destroy yourself or your exit route, too, while hacking drones is useful until you forget that they self-destruct after a time, potentially taking you with them.
In fact, that self-destruction is part of the dark humour at play here, in a game that consistently made us laugh despite its action platforming focus. That's perhaps unsurprising considering the developer's track record in producing titles with plenty of comedy, but the whole premise plays into this - steampunk guard robots are incredibly dense outside of field of vision, ignoring nearby explosions as one example, and there's an element of chaos. The radio-based remote detonator, for example, is so low-tech that it'll blow up any landmine in range. At one point we were stood between rooms with two mines in range - one to take out enemies, one right next to a hacking terminal - and couldn't tell which would detonate. It was a gamble, and it backfired, taking out the terminal and wiping out our prospects in the process.
The Swindle seems like a title that'll play well into short bursts or extended play sessions, depending on mood. A typical raid would take us under five minutes, often because we made a mistake and killed ourselves or set off the alarms, but that simply prompted a one-more-go mentality. Likewise it's the sort of title that would suit a quick gap for gaming, a 30 minute slot for some light-hearted fun. It's impressive in that it's relatively simple to pick-up-and-play, yet there's underlying complexity that the best players will be able to master for impressive results. In the procedurally generated heist stakes this falls into a similar vibe to Image & Form's upcoming SteamWorld Heist in providing a mix of simplicity and depth, but in this case provides chaotic hacking and platforming as opposed to 2D turn-based strategy.
Dan Marshall and Size Five Games have a big reputation - and awards to show for it - in the PC space, and The Swindle's blend of chaos, action and slapstick steampunk seems to be a perfect fit for the studio's first console releases. If you own a Wii U and haven't been paying attention to The Swindle, we suggest that you remedy that right away.
Be sure to check back soon for a detailed interview with Dan Marshall.