Swordship looks like something from the world of Wipeout, except here the race is for your life. With buttery cel-shaded graphics and a cool ambient techno soundtrack, it's stylistically polished. The frame rate maintains a perfect 60 FPS, with its industrial periphery altering between cities and the colour of the seas moving through several pastel shades.
In a post-apocalyptic future, the fortunate have taken root in megacities beneath the seas. Rogue pilots who fight for the banished race down waterways looking for stray containers, grabbing them when they surface and delivering them via a portal. Pegged as a ‘dodge 'em up’, Swordship is just that, confining you to a volatile rectangular area where you use everything at your disposal to stay afloat.
Discounting the occasional smart bomb or stun weapon, you have no guns, and the idea is to trick the enemy drones, laser turrets, mine deployers, and cannons, amongst others, into accidentally killing each other. This involves, for example, letting mines track you while you camp near a gun turret, watching its spherical blast radius and listening for pitch changes, before hauling ass as the explosion takes the turret with it. Creating combos with this technique often leads to big score bonuses. When navigating the relentless ocean floor, your dive — which allows your craft to temporarily submerge beneath the water — is your get-out-of-jail-free card. Time it right, and it’ll save your skin. Get it wrong and you’re vaporised in the blink of an eye.
Swordship is a challenging game, geared toward experts. Although you can tailor your ship and enemy response speeds, there’s only one real difficulty setting, no continues, and the name of the game is score — which is why the absence of online leaderboards is so mystifying (Correction: Online leaderboards are available after completing a run in every city without losing your available lives and getting a game over. This was missed during our review testing. As this is still fairly difficult to unlock, our assessment remains unchanged). If you manage to reach the fourth city, which takes dedicated practice, you can consider yourself advanced enough to go the distance. Some, sadly, may get frustrated before reaching this point. One minor niggle is that there’s no D-pad control option, which some may prefer over analog sticks.
The game dishes out ship upgrades between stages along with an abundance of extra lives, and eventually, you'll be rewarded with a newer craft. Hardcore players can choose to trade life bonuses for score — a risk-and-reward scenario that has you living on a knife edge in the game’s latter half. Each city introduces new enemy types with different behaviours and even tailored weather conditions, creating a unique personality for each new area, and requiring you to strategise and act differently in each.
The setup of destroying enemies using their own ordnance is satisfying and, when you pull off a ‘quadra trick’ for the first time, sending the screen ablaze as the camera momentarily, dynamically shifts to take in the carnage, is thrilling.
Swordship is a clever, original, and interesting concept. It looks good, sounds good, and plays well. There’s just that RNG irritant that means, while you can learn enemy behaviours, you sometimes get lost in the fray. Even the camera shifts and the slow down (which can be disabled) can occasionally disorientate you from your position, resulting in sudden death. At the same time, while imperfect, its evolving and increasingly intense nature has major appeal for score hunters. And, when you do grab that container, trip under a set of lasers, detonate three mines sequentially and blow the screen sky-high, it earns itself an action badge of honour.