The Swindle represents the first foray onto Nintendo hardware for Dan Marshall and his studio Size Five Games - via Curve Digital - having built up a strong reputation with PC releases. Bringing its own unique brand of quirky cyberpunk thievery, it's a slice of procedurally generated silliness likely to amuse as well as frustrate players; picking apart its knowing cruelty from flaws is as tricky as the most reckless heist.
Set in an alternative London of 1849, the core setting is that of a comedic steampunk world in which security consists of rickety and unreliable steambots and weapons. As a career thief - or gang of thieves, we'll come to that - your very existence is threatened by a Scotland Yard (police) innovation codenamed 'The Devil's Basilisk', which will provide total surveillance over the city and end your career. You have 100 days to reach Scotland Yard and steal it in the ultimate Swindle.
It's a fun setup for this randomly generated caper, and that countdown is central to the game. Each attempted heist - whether successful or not - accounts for one full day, so across that 100 day limit you need to steal a lot of money to boost your abilities and upgrade your security access through multiple levels. You start off stealing pocket change in the slums, then progress to Warehouses, before later in the game you're tackling casinos, banks and then finally the police headquarters.
The key trick is managing your money carefully. On the one hand it's necessary to focus on upgrading your level, as a Bank will yield greater rewards than a casino, but naturally security heightens. At the start you have extremely limited abilities, so upgrading your capabilities to match the challenge while also moving on as quickly as possible is a balancing act. Due to the - we suspect deliberate - minimal guidance the game gives you, learning which upgrades are essential and which are extravagant diversions is key, and with auto-saving in place to stop you gaming the system multiple playthroughs become a necessity.
The actual gameplay itself is at different points enjoyable, funny and frustrating. The humour in this game partly comes through occasional text introductions, but is primarily driven by animations and quirks of the various security measures. With progress comes bizarre, more peculiar foes, along with increasingly imaginative ways to deal with them. Setting off explosions, trapping or bopping dim steam-driven robots is hugely fun, and there are daft slow-motion animations to capture that moment you pull off a stylish assault or smash through a window. When not dealing with these nuisances your priority is to hack computers for significant amounts of cash, while smaller amounts can also be picked up from the ground.
There's certainly a cleverness to the design that encourages smart, skilful play. As mentioned above having the right tools is vital, but strategy, patience and timing are necessities. Charging in will often result in you getting caught or killed, while setting off alarms initiates a dash for safety to escape in your pod before building shutters come down and arriving police reinforcements spoil your day.
Whenever you do lose a thief, they die forever and are replaced by another quirkily-named criminal. That's charming in terms of seeing more character designs, and you don't lose your overall pot of money - only that heist's earnings prior to death are sacrificed. Yet completing multiple successful heists - seemingly defined by nabbing 90% or more of a level's cash - boosts the character's XP level; this is crucial, as each level upgrade multiplies your cash takings from each raid. This is a momentum game, so going on a good run can yield significant benefits and allow for quicker progress; losing a character with a decent XP level is - deliberately so on the developer's part - a painful moment.
The downside is that with randomly generated levels come inconsistencies, and not always of the fair kind. Sometimes a stage will be remarkably generous and easy, and there'll be times where a heist in the same difficulty tier will be fiendish and necessitate upgrades you didn't think you needed. These are the vagaries of the genre, ultimately, and you can at least decide to bail out without earning much cash but keeping your character in place. Even acknowledging the nature of the beast, though, at times the balancing feels a little off.
Difficulty also demands precision, and this Wii U version also has flaws in this regard. There are noticeable dips in framerate and performance that can cause havoc with efforts to carefully wall-climb and stay out of trouble. A few glitches and gremlins are also present; we had one villain defy the game's own physics and shoot us through a solid wall, and at one point we were closing a door to avoid detection but our character was unexpectedly warped to another door and killed by the nearby robot. When considering the high stakes, limited time frame - which can be extended at a cost late game - and the importance of levelling up and momentum, unexpected deaths like this are far from welcome.
Also of note, while reviewing this title we also encountered a few freezes, necessitating complete reboots of the system. As a typical heist lasts a few minutes and auto-saving keeps progress in check, these weren't too punishing; it's worth being aware that it's a possibility, in any sense.
Overall, our niggles with The Swindle don't detract from what we feel is an enjoyable title on the eShop. It offers plenty of value in terms of the campaign and the fact that you'll be forced to restart and evolve your strategy, and therefore has the potential to keep eager thieves busy for quite some time. It's a beautifully stylised experience, too, with the art design and music both deserving high praise for their light-hearted portrayal of this bizarre 19th Century steampunk London.
The Swindle is another high quality download option on the Wii U eShop, offering a significant challenge for those that consider themselves to be gamers both sharp-witted and with fast reflexes. It's hugely clever, chaotic and funny, though there are downsides in the implementation of randomly generated stages and in some technical glitches and flaws. Despite some issues the premise, presentation, music and gameplay all work well together, making this a steal on the Wii U - just not the great heist it could have been.