Rated E10+; Reviewed on PS3
“The Unfinished Swan”, developed by Giant Sparrow, is the latest game to come out of Sony’s incubator initiatives. Sony is making a habit of spotting and encouraging promising new development teams. While the PS3 definitely can’t rival the PC in the sheer volume of independent and experimental games, it stands well above the other consoles in this area.
You play Monroe, a little boy who’s lost his mother. All he has left is one of her many paintings, none of which she ever finished. The (not quite complete) Swan, his favorite, suddenly runs off one day and Monroe follows with nothing but his little silver paintbrush. You’re following in the path of an egotistical king who tried, over and over, to create the perfect kingdom. The first time, you see, he created the world but couldn’t find any colors good enough for it so he left it all white. When his subjects complained he added shadows. His third world was overrun with a creeping vine and so he abandoned it and so on.
As we follow in the path of the king exploring his worlds we learn more about Monroe, his mother and the true nature of the world. The story is told as a wonderfully written (and read) children’s book (so well done in fact that I consider it a huge oversight that there’s no special/extras menu that lets us read it as a single piece). Pages of the story are hidden throughout the kingdoms and because of their quality are an absolute joy to find. The artwork is geometric, angular and beautiful. The audio work is simple, but excellent.
Like many other what I like to call “Arthouse” games this couples a set of novel gameplay mechanics with a polished, compelling story. Most of the mechanics in this case revolve around, for lack of a better word, “splatting”. The first area is by far the most impressive: a completely white universe that can only be revealed by shooting splats of black ink across it. The binary nature of the world means that splatting too much ink around leaves you just as badly off as when you started (in an all black world). This 3D world is as detailed as any other in gaming but utterly alien in it’s revelation.
The splat mechanics are visceral and so very much fun. You’ll stand for minutes on end just launching ink balls for the sheer joy hearing the “SPLAT!” as they land. As you navigate the worlds there are many hidden balloons that you can trade for “toys” that can be activated whenever you like. These include a “firehose” mode, the ability to blank the canvass, a “sniper rifle” mode and more. A significant amount of your time with the title will be spent in idle fascination with these silly, awesome, little toys.
Unfortunately the mechanics introduced later aren’t as effective (or as fun). They still work and fit the story; which is more than compelling enough to carry you forward. During one sequence, in the kingdom of the vines, you splat water which, in turn, allows the vines to grow and let’s you climb them to new areas. The art and animation here is gorgeous, but the actual gameplay is fairly linear and lacks the magical, exploration quality of the earlier levels. Later we enter the world of king’s workshop which takes on an architectural feeling and the player is charged with building new elements of the world. Again, this is interesting but feels sterile and less organic than the rest.
These minor missteps aside, this is something not to be missed. Clocking in at something like four or five hours, this isn’t a long title but you’ll love every minute of it. Where there has been a tendency for many recent arthouse titles to swing toward the dark, depressive side of the scale this game is joyful and ultimately uplifting. It’s fun to just sit and watch and so very much fun to play.