Swarm Xbox 360, PS3
Swarm positions you as the minder of fifty easily replaceable blue-ish things called Swarmites – whose lives you can callously end in multiple adorably sadistic ways. It’s not a game that treats death as the be-all end-all to your gaming well-being, as unlike pretty much every other game on the market, the death of your character(s) in Swarm is a necessity for advancing.
To teach you this, less than 30 seconds into the first level, the game starts unceremoniously shooting up retractable spikes from the ground, sacrificing the majority of your fifty-strong army in an effort to show their death is nothing to cry over. Then, to hammer it home, ten seconds later, your army is replenished. The moral of the story being that once you keep at least one Swarmite alive, you can keep going.
That does not mean the game is just solely about navigating. The core mechanic is in fact collecting, and some refined touches are needed to position your group to try and nab everything on show. You can bunch them up, or spread them out as they walk along using each of the shoulder triggers. Whilst huddling together, repeatedly pressing A makes them jump atop of each other into a physics defying tower of Swarmites that balance on each other’s heads. There is also a dash move, the most useful of the bunch, as it is used to break crates, which hold a vast amount of the games collectables – namely DNA strands.
As you’d expect, being at the helm of controlling fifty Swarmites, and doing the above madcap moves is a bit chaotic, but it is also good fun to see them prancing about. The group looks quite daft as they are guided over and under jets of fire, shimmied around chainsaw blades, and over and under other obstacles. Moving them feels very organic, with no tower of Swarmites looking the same as the last, and equally no jump will see your swarm leap in perfect unison either. There will always be a straggler lagging behind, or a more excitable one pushing forward. It is a clever touch, and one that bring some life to the characters.
That all sounds well and good, but to ultimately succeed in Swarm you have to push your combo high, and at the same time keep a set amount of the swarm alive. At some points, you’ll need enough Swarmites left alive to build a tower to reach higher objects, at other times enough of them must remain to stand on a button to trigger the appearance of more collectibles. Walking right by these opportunities is an option, but Swarm is all about racking up points, and you are constantly compelled to gather all you can get. To do so, you are forced to play with a careful mindset, but keep in mind you are rushing to keep your combo alive too. Regretfully, that playstyle, in a game as chaotic as Swarm, is almost too stressful to be fun
Ultimately the game’s biggest problem is that it’s all too easy to lose. Messing up a small section in Swarm is the start of a chain reaction to ruining your progress of a whole level. If you think of each of Swarm’s levels like a rhythm game, missing one note, or in Swarm’s case being too slow to nab a pickup, means your score multiplier will reset and you have to get it going again by grabbing more pickups. Because you lost your combo, you’re then missing out on the multiplier you originally had boosting your score. So, one mistake really is death to your progress in a level – which is not too smart for a game that is so casual about death as a whole. There are checkpoints in place but should you die, you respawn with a drained combo-meter, so they are not really as helpful as they originally appear. Restarting the whole level is usually a better option than continuing after your mistake.
This constant rush for a high score is made worse by the fact that each level of the game is unlocked by reaching a certain score on the one before, meaning if you get stuck on a level, you are literally stuck, unable to advance, with nothing else to do until you force yourself to complete it. All the cleverness and comedic tone of the game cannot help if this befalls you. You cannot tell a joke multiple times to the same person, and still get a laugh, so Swarm’s strongest facet becomes an annoyance, and it just gets worse as forced multiple playthroughs stack up.
I feel like each of the levels in Swarm tries to offer the same celebratory feelings you get when you trounce a level in Super Meat Boy, but instead of expertly treading the knife edge between fun and difficulty, Swarm stumbles across it. Instead of celebrating that I had beaten a level after a few tries, I instead just felt happy that I would not have to play that bit of the game again, and that is not a good feeling to come away from the game with.
It pains me to admit it, but the one thing I did not fully enjoy about Swarm was the gameplay. Everything else seemed spot on. I loved the humour, I adored the game’s style, and in the same vein as Ubisoft’s Rabbids, the Swarmites are annoyingly loveable characters. There is nothing glaringly wrong with the game; it really is just a large number of minute annoyances that add up to get on your nerves. The core game just needed a bit more refinement to match up with what seems to be an exciting initial vision. If that had panned out, I honestly believe Swarm could have been something great.