When puzzle games are developed poorly, the result is often a disjointed mess. There is little to no narrative explanation as to why one’s character is solving the game’s brain-teasers; he or she simply does so because that’s what happens to be required of them. When puzzle games are conceived correctly, every inch of the game makes sense. The difficulty may cause one to want to rip every hair from his or her head, but the tools for success are always in plain sight. Excellent puzzlers educate without belittling; they reward rather than punish. The Swapper is one of the best examples of a puzzler done right, as it checks every conceivable box on the hypothetical “Good Puzzle Game Checklist.”
Originally released on PC in 2013, The Swapper tells the haunting story of a lunar-esque base in chaos. Players take the role of an explorer tasked with obtaining resources from the mysterious Chori V planet to help prolong life back on Earth. After discovering that nearly every crew member has died under questionable circumstances, the player-character wanders around the ship seeking answers. The ambiguous nature of The Swapper‘s story creates a near-constant sense of dread, as it’s clear at all times that something has gone horribly wrong. Make no mistake though, this is not the type of game that will explain every second of the narrative in near-excruciating detail. The subtle use of terror and atmospheric visuals allows every moment to feel important, creating a sense of urgency that does wonders in helping players overcome the game’s various challenges.
The only tool at the player’s disposal is the titular Swapper Gun, a clone-spawning weapon of mass-puzzle destruction. By pressing the left trigger, players are able to create a red outline of themselves that can be placed nearly anywhere in the area. Upon releasing the button, a clone is dropped at the player’s position of choice. Clones undertake the same actions as the actual player, mimicking everything from directional movement to jumping. A simple pull of the right trigger swaps the player’s consciousness to any clone in their direct line of sight, allowing access to previously inaccessible areas. If this sounds straightforward, that’s because it absolutely is. The simple spawning and swapping mechanic is technically the only gameplay element in The Swapper. Players have up to five clones at their disposal, and how they are used is entirely up to them. What makes The Swapper outstanding is the insane level of challenge that slowly builds off of its undoubtedly elementary core mechanic.
Every puzzle involves some combination of pressure-switches, box-moving, spawn or switch prevention lights, and vertical platforms. The goal is always the same: figure out a way to get the orb (or orbs) at the end of the sequence in order to advance. Perhaps one has to manipulate blue and red lights, which force the player to conceive an order in which they will be able to maneuver his or her clones. Maybe using a clone to press a switch allows players to lift a massive concrete wall. The Swapper finds a way to do more with less, as the subtly increasing difficulty allows players to learn without realizing it. The game never tells you what to do, it simply presents you with a challenge and allows you to figure it out in whatever way you see fit. The lack of any sort of timer encourages players to experiment, as trying new techniques is the best way to solve any of the game’s numerous puzzles. This is brain-teasing at its absolute finest. In fact, The Swapper‘s understated education system has the potential to win over those who aren’t particularly fond of puzzle games.
Of course, it’s well documented that The Swapper is an excellent game. This is a multi-platform port of a roughly fourteen-month old title. So what’s different?
For those who own any (or all) of the PlayStation platforms, they’ll find a shining example of why Cross-Buy and Cross-Save should be industry standards. The Swapper‘s numerous checkpoints and easy cloud synchronization allow players to swap between platforms, meaning that the game exists outside of any given system. Those who own a PlayStation 4 and a PlayStation 3 will have a hard time justifying cross-platform play, but the Vita version of the game is competent enough to make this a title that can be played at home or on the go.
The PlayStation 4 version of The Swapper is, without a doubt, the definitive PlayStation version of the game. The textures are outstandingly beautiful, with every crater and each leaf boasting a stunning level of detail. The game never looks blurry, and the increased level of detail actually makes solving puzzles easier. Because every color and every light pops, it’s incredibly easy to tell where every partially hidden box and switch is. While it’s not as hyper-realistic as inFAMOUS Second Son or as artistically stunning as Transistor, this is a flagship example of how solid art-design can make a game look outstanding regardless of its scale. Though The Swapper is excellent on every platform, the PlayStation 3 and Vita versions do offer a significant downgrade from the PlayStation 4 iteration.
Surprisingly, the PlayStation 3 version is actually the worst-looking version of the three. One would think that the Vita edition would suffer from its hardware’s limitations, but the compacted screen allows the visuals to scale down on a level that preserves detail. The PlayStation 3 version seems to suffer from a general sense of blurriness at all times, with some objects in the dark being hard to spot because of this effect. This isn’t to say the game is ugly by any means, but after playing the other two versions, it’s clear that this edition is the least visually appealing.
The Swapper is an outstanding handheld game. Its exploration sections lends itself to longer play periods, while its individual puzzles are perfect for ten minute “pick up and play” sessions. The controls work absolutely perfectly at all times, and the simplicity of the mechanics allow the game to function just as well on the Vita as on the consoles. It’s easy to see some players spending the majority of their time with the handheld version, as The Swapper is easily one of the Vita’s best games. It should be noted that the Vita version is only a few megabytes smaller than the PlayStation 3 version, meaning that the game is largely the same as its last-gen counterpart. The previously mentioned screen size takes away the blurriness that plagues the PlayStation 3 version, meaning that this is a great way to show off what your fancy handheld can do.
The Swapper is yet another indie coup for Sony, as it is very clearly one of the best puzzle games to come out in years. This is a well-designed experience that has the potential to win over non-puzzler fans. Its simple mechanics and gradual difficulty curve allow players to never feel overwhelmed, making it perfect for puzzle veterans and rookies alike. Those with a PlayStation 4 and a Vita will find themselves bouncing between the two versions because of how perfect of a cross-platform title it is. The Swapper would stand on its own as a well-designed puzzler, but its excellent narrative and understated sense of terror make it an experience to remember.
Version Reviewed: PlayStation 4