Writing a review of The Swapper by Facepalm Games—a studio surely named after the gesture you’ll perform when you finally solve the tougher challenges in this space-based puzzle scroller—is a bit like trying to talk about The Prestige to someone who’s never seen the film. If that’s you, it’s best you just go ahead and skip this review. Our guilt would be too great if we accidentally spoiled your cinematic enjoyment.
One light blocks clone-creation, the other disables swapping. Welcome to the bane of your puzzle-solving existence.
If it sounds a little odd to be mixing movies with gaming, we counter that it would be odder still to not bring up an obvious inspiration behind The Swapper’s mechanics and storyline—of which we’re a bit loathe to spoil too much, given the precision behind its grand reveal.
You’re not a magician in The Swapper; rather, the game starts you off as a nameless space explorer who’s been (unwittingly) jettisoned from orbiting Research Station Theseus onto the surface of the planet Chori V. Once you’re done basking in the loveliness of the game’s cinematic opening—get used to it, because The Swapper’s atmospheres only get prettier—you quickly come across the game’s Portal mechanic. Enter the (appropriately named) Swapper device.
The Swapper—the gun, not the game—is a handheld version of Calvin and Hobbes’s Duplicator with a fun twist. You create copies of yourself (that mirror your every move) by holding down the right mouse button, painting an outlined target of your body over a particular area, and releasing the mouse button. The “swapping” portion of the deal relates to the gun’s secondary capability, which allows you to jump around between the five different copies of yourself that can simultaneously exist (if you have line-of-sight to shoot them)
In Prestige terms (Warning: some Prestige spoilers ahead), it would be akin to Hugh Jackman’s character being able to transfer his “active consciousness” from clone to clone as he sees fit, thus sparing him the unpleasant aftermath of having to drink so much water following a successful performance of his Transported Man “illusion.” Of course, that explanation makes an assumption about where Jackman’s core consciousness exists when the trick goes off, a fact that’s hardly ignored by The Swapper’s increasingly philosophical plot.
To Facepalm Games’s credit, the game doesn’t beat you over the head with Stephen Hawking–like displays of metaphysics—all those clones notwithstanding. The Swapper feels evenly paced as its story devolves from “simple puzzle game” to a push to discover who you are, who the game’s antagonists are (if there even are any), and how a bunch of giant intelligent rocks littered around the Theseus fit into the grand picture.
Rocks, we note, that take over your screen with their telepathic thoughts. Hey, we never said this game was that straightforward.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find an environment in this game that isn’t downright beautiful.
To borrow Prestige language once again, the turn eventually comes; we won’t tell you when, but we will note that the game’s dénouement actually does wrap up the story in a manner that’s hardly displeasing. Save for, perhaps, the game’s ultimate ending—you’re going to feel a great compulsion to play The Swapper again. Or, at the very least, you’re going to find it difficult to avoid YouTube once the credits start rolling.
We love that Facepalm Games does such a good job of easing you into its story’s complexities, because the raw mechanics of this five-to-seven hour game (nine, if you’re that bad at puzzles or really try to find the 10 hidden achievements) don’t demand nearly as much of a leap. We’re not criticizing; if anything, we think The Swapper is ideally timed for what it expects and delivers. We didn’t feel any tedium during our puzzle-solving, unlike Portal 2’s seemingly endless test levels and murky behind-the-scenes tours.
While The Swapper (mostly) confines its plot to the Theseus and uses a bit of creative backtracking to avoid trapping players in a strictly linear map progression, the game’s frequent inclusion of teleportation portals allows you to travel sans headache to areas you’ve previously discovered. Solving the puzzles of various rooms, mostly split off from key sections by The Swapper’s Super Metroid–style doors, allows you to obtain Trigon Orbs. Collect enough orbs and you unlock new sections of the ship to progress through.
The Swapper seamlessly zooms in and out to give you a better sense of scale during your jaunt through the Theseus.
Our only real criticism is that the game’s setup still makes you feel like a train on a single track, as you aren’t given much creative flexibility to go beyond the confines of the formula: unlock area, solve branched puzzles, unlock new area, etc. There are no bonuses in The Swapper; there are no extras. You must pick up every single orb in the game to get to the big ending, all of which makes The Swapper’s framing feel a bit restricted.
The puzzles themselves follow the Portal formula: Introduce a concept, let the player master it after one or two iterations, then introduce another new concept. [Warning: Swapper spoilers below] These can be new mechanics, like colored lights that prevent you from using the various traits of the ol’ Swapper gun in critical areas, or reinvented ways of thinking—our personal favorite, given all those times we had to kill ourselves to perform simple tasks.
Yes, kill ourselves.
To bring The Swapper full circle, much of the game’s core centers on the question of consciousness: Who are you? When you swap, what happens to “active you”? What happens to your soul? Do you even have a soul? Who’s in the Prestige box?
To craft a gameplay mechanic around this very question—forcing you to constantly send an army of clones to their deaths to complete puzzles, survive falls, or, in a moment that made us cackle when we first realized it, navigate up and down through the ship—is just plain brilliant.
Facepalm Games intertwines its plot and its mechanics perfectly. By the time you’ve fully jumped into The Swapper’s philosophical rabbit hole, you’ll be killing enough copies of yourself to make an army. You might find yourself questioning your clones’ fates—whether you just broke the legs of you, as your clone, or whether your clone is you and you just sent a useless husk of yourself on a 75-foot free-fall. You might even start to feel bad.
Absolutely beautiful visuals, excellent voice-over work (over a soothing soundtrack), and the frustrating creativity behind some of the game’s puzzles make The Swapper a must-try as-is. Consider the primer on human mortality an added bonus—an extra clone, if you will.