With the Wii U eShop’s recent flurry of sci-fi titles such as Master Reboot and The Fall finding a home on the digital service, what does it take for yet another game set in space to stand out from the crowd? Puzzles. Yep, but not just any old puzzles — spatial physics-based conundrums that’ll give your brain a thorough workout. Also, why not swap out that gun for a cloning device called The Swapper, and then name the game after it? This is exactly what Finnish developer FacePalm's game delivers, and it has certainly paid off.
The story starts out simply enough — your character has been stranded aboard a derelict space-station and is looking for a way to escape. That’s it. There is also little to say of your mysterious, space-suited character, and as with much of the game details and background explanations are on a need-to-know basis. At its simplest, The Swapper is essentially a physics puzzler with platforming elements, meaning it plays more like The Cave than the aforementioned The Fall. However, the game’s setting creates an unnerving sense of isolation that is reminiscent of the Metroid series — other similarities appear in the tasks of collecting logs (which serve as the main narrative for the game’s story), acquiring a couple of power-ups near the beginning of the campaign and a small amount of backtracking, but this a different beast to Metroid altogether.
To progress through the Space Station you’ll need to collect a certain amount of orbs in any given area, which in turn will open doors, activate teleportation devices and teleport streams; acquiring these orbs won’t be an easy task as you’ll have to find a solution to a room’s puzzle first. Fortunately with the help of The Swapper tool you can make up to four clones of your character, and change between control of each of them using your swap beam, as long as they’re within your line of sight. Your clones will mimic your every move – if you move left, they move left; if you jump, they jump, etc. — and if you run short of clones you can acquire more by touching them, sacrificing them or walking into white spotlights. However, only the clone that you’re directly in control of has use of the swapper device.
Some puzzles further add to their complexity by featuring teleportation, antigravity pads or by disabling your abilities. For example, red lights block your swap ability, blue lights stop your clone ability and purple lights block everything. Using the swapper device will enable you to slow time too, which allows you to position your next clone and even swap to it, giving you the ability to create a chain of controllable clones, one at a time. This is an absolute necessity in order to make your way to the bottom of a chasm without dying, or conversely to scale heights which would be impossible to reach otherwise.
Alongside this, The Swapper features a captivating — albeit somewhat fragmented — storyline told through logbooks, onscreen text and scattered conversations, although little is given away until the game nears its conclusion. A lot of the philosophical and thought provoking plot revolves around the swapper itself, making you question the effect it’s having on your character whilst using it and will have you asking yourself, ‘is there really such as thing as a soul?’
Graphically, Curve Studios' port of The Swapper is more in line with the PC version of the game than the other formats that are available, and that’s certainly no bad thing. When it comes to aesthetics and ambience, this is certainly a unique game. You may not notice initially that most of the game's assets have been handcrafted using clay, but it does give the presentation a very distinct environment and depth of field.
Despite many of the puzzles using neon red, blue and purple lights, this is predominantly a dimly lit and secluded game. The environments that are brighter are usually served by florescent lighting which, giving a sterile and cold feel, only compounds the isolation. Foliage in some areas provides some fleeting warmth and relief from the sterility, but it’s not long before you’re quickly plunged back into the darkness and solitude.
The Swapper’s ambient soundtrack, meanwhile, is mostly made up of atmospheric soundscapes or minimalistic piano parts that successfully immerse you into the world. Sound is used sparingly throughout the campaign, leaving you often accompanied only by the sound of your own character’s footsteps — lighting flickers, machinery whirs and radio static bring the setting to life.
Features unique to Wii U are of a fairly standard affair, including off-screen play and the GamePad’s usage of displaying the logbook entries found at memory terminals and a handy, swipe-able map. The latter displays where orbs are located in a room, doors that have not yet been entered and memory terminals and teleport devices, allowing you to warp around the map once they’ve been activated. The control scheme is very easy to pick up, with ZR used to make clones and ZL to swap between them. The right stick serves as a sight for your swapper device; in some situations it can be a little fiddly to position accurately, but the sensitivity can be adjusted from the option menu.
Some of the puzzles appear simple but are deceptively tricky, yet if you’re after a sense of achievement this is the game for you. Knowing that you have all the tools necessary to complete each puzzle, from very early on in the game, is occasionally equally comforting and mildly frustrating. The puzzles are never too frustrating and even if you do get stuck you know that the solution lies with you, rather than having to rely on an upgrade that’d make your life a cakewalk. Though the controls are simple and the game offers nothing in terms of upgrades, the puzzles don’t become repetitive. Bar the first few minutes of gameplay where the controls are explained onscreen, The Swapper never holds your hand — patience and experimentation are the key components of progressing in this game.
Without getting stuck on any of the puzzles for too long you’ll see the credits roll in about 4-5 hours of gameplay. However, getting stumped on one or two puzzles, like this reviewer did, could easily add another hour or two. There isn’t much in the way of replayability as the puzzles obviously lose some of their charm they second time around, but completionists my want to go back through to find all the memory terminal logs and witness the multiple endings.
Although The Swapper was originally released on PC nearly a year and half ago, this does little to dampen its appeal on Wii U; this is a title feels fresh and unique when stacked up against some of the other download games the eShop has to offer. With its unsettling environment, intriguing storytelling and some truly mind-bending puzzles, the entire experience oozes quality. Those looking for an atmospheric puzzle platformer, which makes you think not only about problem solving but also providing food for thought, should certainly consider giving The Swapper a go. Even though it’s a little on the short side considering the asking price, it would be a shame to miss out on the rich experience it offers.