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The Swindle review


It is fascinating to think about the numbers that developers choose to work with, and 100 – a plain old century – is the most intriguing number that has come my way in quite a while. The Swindle gives you 100 days to prepare for its final mission, and while that’s enough time to allow you to work around unforeseen accidents, it’s also enough time to ensure that failure will really sting. On my first attempt, those 100 days of build-up culminated in a mission that lasted 12 seconds start to finish, and ended, as all unsuccessful missions do, with a blizzard of banknotes and the crumpled thunk of a sodden body impacting on the cobblestones.

The Swindle’s a knockabout 2D platformer at heart: a Spelunky-flavoured, steampunky muddle of stealth and violence in which you rob a series of procedurally scrambled mansions. Who doesn’t like a good caper? But when this game swipes at you with its claws, it can draw blood, and that 100-day time limit is the reason. You will really love this, or you will really hate it, I suspect. I really love it.

We’re in Alternate Victorian London here, surrounded by clanking robots and rattling blimps. The world is viewed through a thick smudge of dirt and smoke, and technology, by and large, tends to look like it might be an early form of Teasmaid. In 100 days, Scotland Yard will turn on The Devil’s Basilisk, a mass surveillance system that will basically end all crime for good. Cast as a criminal – or rather a whole motley of them – you have a certain vested interest in this not happening, so you hatch a plan to swipe the bobbies’ nasty machine before it’s been activated. Kitting out for that final mission is going to cost you money, though, which means 100 days of increasingly risky robberies as you spend your way through the necessary upgrade trees. Voila: a pleasant sense of escalation and a comment on government surveillance. Its mere existence fundamentally alters the behaviour of the population it is spying on – and not in a good way.

Welcome to 1126 Assembly Avenue, where a crime is being committed. Several, in fact, if you consider the lack of elegance in the committing of a crime to be something of a crime in itself. Dewdrop Billy (tentative catchphrase: “I dew drop in, and then I hit you with a billy”) is on the scene. He has broken windows and he has plundered safes. He has clubbed patrolling robot guards into tidy piles of cogs and springs, and he has shattered floating machine-guns with a deft swipe of the truncheon. Sadly, he has also tripped the alarm and the cops are coming. Sadder still, he has just entered a room through a hole in the ceiling only to find himself confronted with a dead end – and, of course, a hole in the ceiling he can no longer reach. Dewdrop Billy failed to buy double-jump before he set off on his most recent caper, just as he failed to buy bombs, or the ability to remotely detonate mines. His most recent caper is likely to be his last.

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Patsy Gibber, Juliet Danger, Geneve Fistsmasher, Myrtle Crowhide: The Swindle really knows how to generate a name for a Victorian crook. I nearly wept when Benedict Eggsworth checked out.

The crucial thing about this story is not that The Swindle will drop you into levels that you can’t easily get out of, although it definitely will. It’s that it gets to the crux of the game, which is all about trying to prepare yourself for something terrifying, while fending off the dark specter of temptation. The Swindle generates unbeatable levels because it gives you the tools to beat any level. The question becomes: in what order do you acquire these tools? And how many will be enough to allow you to try for the really big job that’s forever leering on the horizon?

There is a wonderful relationship here between the scaling horrors of the houses you are sent to burgle and the scaling wonder of the gadgets and abilities you can use to do so. Each of your 100 days represents one robbery – you lose any cash you have in hand if killed, but keep the haul in your bank account and any upgrades, which are passed on to your next procedurally generated thief – and you’ll start off in the slums, facing the flimsiest of patrolling robots and other security measures as you get to grips with the weak opening jump, the wall-scramble for climbing, and the wall-slide for descending (careful with this last one, as you never know what’s lurking beneath you).

This is stealthy territory, which means you mark time by the number of silent takedowns behind you, but there are plenty of other milestones. Early on, you’ll unlock the ability to hack computers for a big cash payout, and you’ll also learn to avoid the clearly-displayed vision areas of each enemy you encounter as, once the alarm’s tripped, cash starts to disappear and the police arrive, overpowered to start with, and increasingly godlike as the clock ticks on.

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Wall-slides can be arrested with an upgrade that allows you to hang in place – which stops disasters from unfolding.

With the money you earn, you can unlock new areas that see you working your way upwards through the teetering hierarchy of London, from warehouses and semi-fancy townhouses to casinos and massive banks where the louring sky is stained sodium orange or blood red. Top-tier security includes walking gramophones who fire mechanical hornets at you in bronzed swarms, or a rotating cube that chugs across the ground towards you and attacks with surprising bursts of speed. The art style, which is hand-drawn and intricate – and is animated in a manner that puts me in mind of Noggin the Nog, the ancient and terrifying children’s show that utilised cardboard cut-outs manipulated in real-time by magnets – is perfect for lending haphazard, addled character to an endless army of unlikely machines. One of the great joys of the game is learning the dangers and the weak spots of each baddy you come across: which kind of enemy can see you from miles off, for example, and which can be subdued by a single swipe from behind.

Some foes, such as an explosive mini-blimp that will hear your footsteps through walls, can actually be useful, as they can be lured toward spots that you’d quite like to blast to pieces in the first place. Or you could just use a bomb, or the teleport move. As in Spelunky, there is a rich ecology here that clips together in very interesting ways, and at 15 hours in, I’m still being surprised by stuff that happens. I’ve just discovered that the wandering robots which seem to have a human brain clamped to the tops of their torsos can open doors. Equally, I’ve just equipped EMP blast for the first time, and now I never want to leave my airship hub without it.