Start Date: July 14, 2016
End Date: September 4, 2016
I obviously play a lot of video games, but it’s been a while since I last developed an extended, debilitating obsession with one particular game. The Swindle broke that streak. I played it compulsively, every day, for months. I’d wake up in the morning and think to myself, “I’ll just play a round or two of The Swindle before I start my day,” and before I knew it two hours had gone by. Or four hours. Or, one sad day, six and a half goddamn hours.
So what exactly is The Swindle? In simplest terms, it’s a heist game. You play as a thief (or more accurately, as many thieves) who must stealthily sneak into randomly generated buildings, rob them blind, and make a daring escape without being detected by the patrolling robot guards.
You use money earned from heists to upgrade your characters, purchase new skills and equipment, and unlock new areas.
Your ultimate goal is to infiltrate Scotland Yard itself, robbing the coppers of their newly-designed crime-fighting device The Devil’s Basilisk.
The Basilisk will go online in exactly 100 days, so that’s how long you have to steal it before getting a Game Over. A “day” in the context of the game = one heist, whether or not it’s a successful one. If you get spotted by a guard during that day’s caper, it’s entirely possible to make a hasty retreat back to your base. But you will be leaving untold treasures behind, and the day will be lost forever as the countdown ticks ever closer to the deadline.
And therein lies that game’s primary challenge. Your worst enemies are your own impatience and greed. You could venture into that really dangerous corridor full of enemies for one measly pile of money, but doing so puts you at risk of dying and losing the entire day’s booty. Is it more sensible to take what you’ve earned so far and get the fuck out of there? Decisions like this are the meat of the game, and it’s made more complicated by the fact that you get a huge bonus for robbing 100% of a level’s cash. Riskiness is rewarded, but only up to a certain point.
I’ve never really gotten the appeal of randomly generated levels before. I always felt that carefully crafted and balanced environments and challenges make for a more satisfying experience, especially in a skill-based 2D platformer. The Swindle made me finally get it. Sure, sometimes you encounter situations which are unfair, unbalanced or just plain impossible, and that can be pretty frustrating. But the flip side is that you often find yourself in the middle of exciting, dramatic, hilarious scenarios that no game developer could have possibly dreamed up. I believe this is what’s known as “emergent gameplay” and I think I love it.
The levels themselves are beautiful little mazes, chock full of cute little visual details and interesting challenges. The wide variety of enemies is also great, by which I mean they’re fucking awful and you will grow to hate them. Especially this fucking thing:
Get ready for that adorable little robot pal to haunt your motherfucking dreams.
One area that the game kinda falters in is the controls. Most of the time they work fine, but occasionally they can get finicky, inconsistent, or even straight-up buggy. For a game built around making calculated and precise movements, this can be a huge problem. I died many times because the controls didn’t respond the way they were supposed to. This is an issue you eventually learn to work around, but I wish it had been a little bit more fine-tuned, especially since death in The Swindle is such a big deal.
The reason death is a big deal is that if you make it to the end of the 100 days without successfully stealing the Basilisk, that’s it – your game is over, and you have to start over again from the very beginning. Since the process of getting through those hundred days can can take hours, every little failure really matters. It took me 180 attempts until I finally beat the game, and when you consider that each of those attempts was a multi-hour affair, you can start to understand the depths of my obsession.
The thing about all those failed attempts (not to mention the 1,992 goddamn deaths) is that I was never left feeling frustrated or pissed. Rather, I was always eager to dive right back in, because I knew I could do better! And I was right. My progression through the game was obviously very slow, but since it was based on the gradual improvement of my own gameplay skills, it was also immensely rewarding. At first I could barely get past the second location before my hundred days were up. Then the third, and fourth, and so on. Eventually, I would consistently reach Scotland Yard, but fail to escape with the Basilisk…
…until the time I didn’t fail. And it wasn’t due to dumb luck or anything like that. It was because of my own awesome skills and meticulous planning! That felt really, really good!
Finally beating The Swindle was very bittersweet. It had been such a huge part of my daily life for so long that I hardly knew what to do with myself without it. It’s remarkable that a game centered around randomly generated levels and stealth-based gameplay – two concepts I usually steer clear of – captivated me as much as it did. If I had played this last year, when it was released, it would have made my Top 10 list for sure. Probably Top 3.
In addition to Steam, The Swindle is also available on all the home consoles, including the Wii U. Man, I really wish I’d gotten the Wii U version instead! It costs around $15 on all platforms and while that might seem a little steep, it’s well worth it. Get this game. Just be prepared for all your free time to fucking disappear without a trace.