The Swindle PC Developed by Size Five Games Released in 2015
I want to take this opportunity to point anybody that is yet unfamiliar with the show to seek out Mark Brown’s “Game Maker’s Toolkit” videos on YouTube. It’s an excellent show analyzing various aspects of game design as explained by a host that manages to be both professional, entertaining, and captivating at the same time. It’s from his show that I learned about The Swindle and while I ended up not liking it very much, at least the video it appeared in was interesting.
The Thieves Guild
In this game you play as a thief in a steampunk rendition of London. In a 100 days an impenetrable new security system will come online, all but certainly making your job completely impossible. Of course, your only option then is to break into places and steal the system before those 100 days are over.
Each day you get to pick a location you want to pillage, starting with the slums, then the warehouse district, gradually unlocking your way to the top. Each time you select an area, generally the newest you can access, the game will generate a randomized building for you to infiltrate. You’ll have to sneak about, avoid security systems and robots, and pick the place clean. After a heist you return to your escape pod and can then choose between immediately doing another randomized run in the same area or returning to your base. In this base you can then buy upgrades, new skills, and equipment at the workbench, as well as pay to unlock new parts of London to go to.
While I did like the idea of having a 100 days to work my way up to a place where I can steal the security system, the problem here is that the core gameplay of The Swindle is utterly unsatisfying, owing to a lot of small nuisances that pile up. The controls are perhaps the worst offender, with your jumps, especially wall-jumping, feeling too perilous and weighty to confidently make precise jumps while avoiding being seen. There were many moments where I had maybe a second to land on the ground and whack a patrolling enemy, only for the character to stick to the wall above the platform or bounce in strange directions during a wall-jump. Attacking too feels like you need to get right behind an enemy to land your strike, and especially the floating camera bots I found obnoxious to try and hit.
The Swindle also applies roguelite designs, so when your thief dies, you lose their experience multiplier, as well as any money you had looted in the heist that saw them perish. This itself I have no problem with, but part of the fun of roguelites is that players keep replaying the game and seeing their skill at tackling the earliest levels grow. The Swindle doesn’t have this, as the game continues to rapidly scale up the difficulty regardless of how you are faring. Especially during my first session I found myself dying a few times as I learned the ropes of play, only for the game to roll out increasingly difficult robots. I was still struggling with making it past the barely functioning camera bots and shortsighted guards; it felt like the game was determined to keep going whether I could keep up or not, and each new element brought with it new deaths as I figured out their working, leading to the game advancing even further. It was a spiral of failure.
I replayed the game a few times after that, even though the initial impressions soured much of the experience for me. As you get further you’ll unlock tools like bombs, hacking skills, and the ability to shroud yourself temporarily, which are certainly fun to play around with. It also has to be said the The Swindle is enjoyable when you get to feel like a real thief, slithering your way out of the most tricky of situations, or effortlessly ghosting your way through a stage utterly unseen by enemies. It just lacks some fundamental elements that I like in games about theft.
Thief has you explore the insides of all sorts of buildings, exploring realistic environments (within the context of the fictional universe) and walking off with everything of value. In The Swindle the buildings it generates are nonsense: rooms can be completely inaccessible without bombs, buildings in The Slums have high tech computers within them, pointless hallways and drops all over the place, and the only thing you steal are literal piles of money that are left all around on the floors. The robotic nature of the enemies also makes failure states immediate and leaves mind-games out of the equation, there is no brief delay between been spotted and an alarm going off, or fun tricks you can play on your enemies beyond just pressing a button to hack them. Playing The Swindle just really made me wish I was playing something like Monaco instead.
Gameplay score: 3/10
Steampunk surveillance state
The Swindle is a 2D game that certainly does its best to set the tone for the dreary steampunk universe it wants to present. The game is full of rickety robots and machinery powered by strange devices, and in the background you can often see endless factories or twisting cityscapes. The game prefers darker colors and warm lighting, though some areas do vary up the color schemes. There are also some fun details, such as walls crumbling as you slide down them or cogs flying out of defeated enemies.
As I mentioned in the gameplay section though, the levels you visit are randomly generated, and where the background design makes an effort to immerse the player, it is in this decision that The Swindle stumbles in my eyes. The randomized nature of the areas leaves them really devoid of atmosphere, and though the game has a healthy amount of clutter in its buildings, it all feels thrown together. I have entered buildings that featured 3 fireplaces in the same, small room, or which had elegant wallpaper transition straight into rough brickwork within the same space. The backgrounds paint a lively world, while the actual playing field just randomizes some set-dressing.
Animations can also be rough and sprites hard to read, leading to a lot of extra deaths. I really didn’t see, for example, that stationary camera systems have a turret on them because it’s so small and blends in with the background. This lead to me getting spotted and figuring I could probably get away with hacking one more computer, whereupon I was shot. Some design I also found peculiar, such as the game zooming in on my character while hacking for no real reason, or the seemingly random slow-motion that triggers when attacking enemies from time to time. What I do like is the game’s music, which is gripping from the very moment the tune kicks off on the main menu. It’s a nice track to have playing as you sneak about and when you get spotted the music goes from soft and nuanced to blaring and loud, matching the situation perfectly.
Presentation score: 4.5/10
The game certainly invites you to become a thief, but while it has a concept in place that would gel well with this theme, i.e. steal the security system before it goes online, it lacks the refinement to make this process any fun. The randomly generated nature of the levels creates environments that are messy, neither pleasing to the eye nor beneficial for gameplay challenges. On top of that, the progression of the game is really discouraging, with new enemy types being introduced rapidly and lots of essential equipment and skills being barred off by massive paywalls, leaving very little room to decide your own path through the available upgrades.
There are times when the game runs well for a while and it makes you feel like a professional burglar, but those moments are then ruined when you die to things out of your control or beyond your ability to predict, or alternatively when the game generates terrible levels you can’t play through at all. It’s not terrible and has moments where it shines, but my general experience with the game was sub-par.