Review: THE UNFINISHED SWAN, the first game from indie developers Giant Sparrow, doesn’t look like your average puzzle-platformer. Does it soar to success, or have this bird’s wings been clipped?
You are Monroe, a recent orphan whose sole remaining possession is one of his mother’s many unfinished paintings: a swan with a missing neck. The anatomically incorrect bird’s subsequent disappearance from its own portrait prompts Monroe to mount a one-boy search operation, venturing into the empty canvas itself, thus beginning a wondrous, deeply enjoyable two-and-a-half hours of exploring, painting and occasional jumping.
It’s fitting that your avatar is a child, because The Unfinished Swan’s worlds and systems exhibit the imagination of one – level design is bold with elements of fantasy and Monroe’s abilities verge on magic. Take the opening sequence: upon dropping into a world of sheer, brilliant white, Monroe gains the ability to chuck infinite balls of black paint. They splatter onto what turns out to be a wall, with a few more throws revealing your first hallway.
Soon, details begin to appear beneath and around the dark splodges: a bench, a tree, a cart. Stray balls land with a splash into colourless water – a pond! A lot of games let you traverse the map, hunting for tiny but deliberate details. The first chapter of The Unfinished Swan replicates that sense of discovery, but uncovers its secrets less than five feet from your face. You aren’t creating the surroundings as you paint, of course, but it’s entirely up to you how much you expose with speculative splodges of black. I suspect a player who compulsively covers everything will have a very distinct memory of what the opening stages look like, compared to one who merely blasts through to the exit.
Don’t be like the second guy. This is the kind of game that rewards a spot of meandering off the track. Usually, these rewards come in the form of balloons, which can be collected and spent on silly unlocks – a hosepipe that rapid-fires your paint grenades? Sold. That’s not to say it isn’t linear – it is – but there are also plenty of nooks, hidden corridors and out-of-the-way platforms that usually have something worthwhile at the end of them.
But is it art?
Although hurling spheres at the environment remains Monroe’s only real method of interaction, the remaining chapters largely move away from painterly territory. Maps also become progressively more detailed, adding shadows, colours and textures – in a way, it’s kind of of an unfortunate truth that developers Giant Sparrow couldn’t make an entire game out of pure black and white, since everything afterwards feels somewhat less unique. Still, challenges remain clever, physical and frequently surprising, if not terribly difficult – I’ve played with paint, water and light, and each ball type had a satisfyingly distinct effect. There’s even some Portal-ish space-looping trickery thrown in, which plays a big part in the excellent penultimate chapter.
Speaking of which, it’s hard to talk about The Unfinished Swan without referencing Valve’s work of puzzle genius. The former has more in common with infant bedtime reading material than the darkly comedic sci-fi of the latter, but the liberal use of deployable liquids will feel immediately familiar to anyone who might have played Tag: The Power of Paint – a less polished but still worthy student project that formed the basis of Portal 2’s mobility gels.
It’s not perfect. A minimalist design doesn’t lend itself particularly well to signposting what needs doing and where, particularly in some of the more open levels, and one sequence late in the game caused it to crash so hard the entire system needed a restart. This only happened once, and some generous checkpointing meant I didn’t lose much progress at all, but it was a disappointing interruption to an otherwise compelling session (again like Portal, a fairly exhaustive playthrough of The Unfinished Swan can be completed in less than one lazy afternoon).
If this review has at times seemed vague with regards to mechanics, environments and plot, that’s because it’s entirely intentional. Like a more extroverted Dear Esther without the excruciating walking speed, The Unfinished Swan is all about discovery, about that quietly mouthed “No way” when you stumble upon [REDACTED] or figure out that [REDACTED] [REDACTED]. To minutely describe all of this downloadable offering’s virtues would spoil the surprise of finding them out for yourself – going in as blindly as possible is the ideal way to play it, and play it you most definitely, positively, absolutely should.
The Unfinished Swan, by Giant Sparrow and Sony Computer Entertainment, is out October 23rd for PS3 (October 16th for PlayStation Plus users).