You may not be familiar with The Swindle but if you like capers, steampunk, or Spelunky you’ll feel right at home. The titular heist revolves around retrieving a newly developed AI from Scotland Yard (code name: Devil’s Basilisk), a high-tech surveillance system designed to eliminate crime from the city. This stylish physics-based 2D platformer uses procedural level generation as it progresses your thieves from ripping off homes in the slums to robbing warehouses and banks in order to work your way up to the main heist. Cash is accumulated by raiding the various vaults and containers for small payouts, or hacking computers for the big bucks. You have exactly one hundred days to ready your thieves for the final mission by pulling off increasingly difficult robberies and using the profits to purchase new tools and abilities.
The Swindle is brought to us by Dan Marshall of Size Five games, makers of Ben There, Dan That! and Time Gentlemen, Please! To be completely honest I’m a bit disappointed that they didn’t go with The Swindle! but regardless of the title’s lack of enthusiasm the game is challenging, addictive, and thoroughly engaging. Also: there are robots with top hats.
The hundred day countdown lends focus to the game, making it a bit more meaningful than simply exploring randomly-generated levels over and over again. One hundred days might at first blush seem like more than enough to clear all six levels, but once you realize that every time a thief dies - and they’re going to die a lot - a day is wasted, that countdown begins to go rather quickly. The time limit placed on working your way up to the final heist adds the necessary incentive to work through each level and lends a nice level of pressure to the proceedings when thief after thief expires before you’re able to clear the level.
Steampunk may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but whether you find the style to be a provocative genre mashup or an irritatingly twee fad it’s undeniable that The Swindle is a great-looking game as far as 2D platformers go. Its hand-drawn art features an appropriately grim color scheme for levels set in a Victorian-era industrial city, and some delightfully strange-looking thieves. Since there are no real tutorials it’s helpful that each map is designed to allow the player to view much of the interior of each building simply by skulking around the exterior and observing the movements and activities of the guards inside.
There’s a certain degree of whimsy infused throughout the game, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the seemingly inexhaustible supply of fantastically-named thieves. Here is but a small sampling of the thieves you may encounter in The Swindle:
- Zebulon Rifleman
- Bertram Tickler
- Allie Clownface
- Clint Furnacelord
- Lafayette Weedbruiser
- Pleasant Undercarriage
Pleasant Undercarriage. Delightful.
The randomized levels are what keeps the game fresh even when you have to replay a level over and over again - a distinct possibility given how easy it is for a thief to meet an untimely end in The Swindle. Robotic guards, traps, cash and hackable computers are all scattered randomly throughout each building so that even when you’re replaying the same level of heist you’re never going back into the exact same building. The caveat is that these levels are procedurally generated without regard to which upgrades you’ve attained. This means that there will be times when you hit on an area of the map that can’t be accessed without a specific upgrade, and are forced to just write that day off. The ability to replay a level with the needed upgrades would be fine, rewarding even, if it weren’t eating up your limited days.
Stealth elements are aided by an array of optional upgrades and enemies that are just the right combination of stupid and deadly. Each guard’s line of sight is clearly marked, and when the opportunity arises it’s not too difficult to manipulate them into aiding your thief. However, unless you’re able to make it back to your escape pod, being caught by one of these guards frequently results in the immediate death of your thief, forfeiture of any cash, and the loss of another day. Unfortunately death - though an expected element of these sorts of games - is a bit punitive in nature in The Swindle. Each thief gains a bonus over the course of successive heists, so that the longer they live the more money you can steal; this bonus is lost along with one of your precious hundred days as soon as the thief dies.
There’s a whole array of neat tools and upgrades to choose from, ranging from explosive charges and cash-siphoning bugs to triple-jumps and improved hacking skills. Upgrades are universal and apply to all of your thieves, a generous touch since the mortality rate is so high. What you’ll find immediately though is that these upgrades are expensive, with huge jumps in price between levels of the same upgrade. (For example, the “Hack Speed” upgrade leaps from £5000 for level one to a whopping £20,000 for level two.)
The other issue with the upgrade system may not be as immediately obvious as the prices. You’re free to choose whichever upgrades you like but you’ll soon realize that some choices are more “correct” than others. For example, in certain buildings you’ll come across a stash locked in a room with no entrance or exit. Impossible to get to - unless you have a very specific upgrade. Don’t have enough cash to go in and buy that one? Tough luck, Bertram Tickler. Cash is also required to access the wealthier areas of the city, so if you hit on a streak of bad luck you may fall behind on both upgrades and level progression, making getting to and then clearing the final heist a dicey proposition.
I can’t tell you how many times one of my thieves has perished by simply standing next to a spike pit. There are a number of these types of small bugs throughout the game which add an unnecessary extra layer of frustration to an already difficult experience. Sometimes a bomb will kill a robot, sometimes it won’t. Sometimes you’ll break the window above you instead of the one in front of you that you need to enter through. Adding to the frustration is the slightly sluggish feel of the controls which doesn’t allow for the precise control over your thieves that’s needed to get through obstacles. A lot of criminal lives could have been saved from unnecessary fall deaths is the controls were just a bit more responsive.
Once you’ve battled your way to the final level and prepared your thieves with a variety of expensive tools and upgrades, you’ll come to the last hurdle before embarking on the final heist: the £400,000 buy-in. After imposing a one hundred day limit and making upgrades incredibly expensive it seems a bit cruel to then greet the player at the final mission with “Oh hey, hope you managed to save up a few hundred thousand pounds!” And the worst part, given the difficulty of that last heist and how easy it is to die in general, is that you have to pay that buy-in fee every time you attempt it. Toward the end of the game there are ways to buy extra days in order to rack up some more cash, but naturally these extra days come at an increasing cost.
Despite the relative simplicity of the concept and gameplay, The Swindle is hugely challenging. There’s a reason this review is coming out so long after the release date, and that reason is because this game is hard, almost brutally so at times. But if you resist the urge to throw your controller across the room long enough you’ll find that can also be also a hugely rewarding experience - nothing is as satisfying as that moment when you finally clear a level with a huge payout; RIP the twelves thieves it took you to get there. The Swindle is a game fueled by those fleeting moments of victory, the times when you execute a near-perfect run after a string of failures, or finish a hack at the last possible moment, holding your breath the whole time. At its core it’s a game of risk and reward, and giving The Swindle a shot is a risk well worth taking.
Nicole T (street name: Barkspawn) is a gamer and writer who’s also holdin’ down a day job in California. You can find her on Twitter @ser_barkspawn, contact her here, and read more of her articles here.
You’re reading Talk Amongst Yourselves, Kotaku’s community-run blog written by and for Kotaku readers like you. We write about games, art, culture and everything in between. Want to write with us? Check out our tutorial here and join in.