As games move further into the mainstream, the kinds of games that sell big numbers, and thus the kinds that get the biggest production budgets, become more and more narrowly defined. These days, first-person shooters, action-RPGs, and yearly incremental sports updates are the bread and butter of the console market, and anything outside those parameters can have a hard time even getting greenlit.
Fortunately, online marketplaces have thrown a precious lifeline to those developers thinking outside the box, and small games with big ideas are available to those who care to look. The Unfinished Swan is a game with some genuinely striking ideas, and although its concepts are often stronger than its gameplay, curious gamers will be glad to see something so different appear on the PlayStation Network.
The game starts with a fantastic hook. After a short storybook introduction about an orphan boy and a swan painting that comes to life, the player is handed the controls and pushed into a world that is at once totally alien and strangely familiar: a crosshair on a background of white. Pure white, all around. Nothing else.
Using the crosshair as a touchstone, the player is left to trust their instincts. Try the trigger buttons, and a ball of black paint arcs out and splashes on the ground. Do it again and again, and suddenly the game world splatters into life, a mess of black giving form to the blanket of white. Soon a path can be found that leads to a pond, and across the pond there is a garden, and the garden is full of statues, and there is only one goal: to follow the swan that is always one step ahead.
It’s a superb opening, and it’s the perfect introduction to the game’s delightful world and its central concepts of discovery and wonder. Without a doubt, The Unfinished Swan is a beautiful game, and its greatest strength is its unique design. The black and white of the beginning is eventually rounded out, first with shadows, then with colours, but from start to finish the game presents a unified world that is completely original and quite charming.
But as striking as it is, The Unfinished Swan is essentially a first-person puzzle game, and despite its great ideas, as a puzzle game it simply doesn’t have legs. The game is divided into four chapters, each with its own theme: the first is the black and white landscape, the second sees the player climbing vines around a walled city, the third involves negotiating a dark forest, and the final chapter introduces the creation and manipulation of blocks to use as stairs and platforms. That first chapter is by far the strongest, but, to varying degrees, each level feels like an interesting idea that simply doesn’t have enough game attached to it.
When it comes to first-person puzzlers, the Portal series is the benchmark, and what Portal does exceptionally well is introduce incredible concepts, and then continually twist and expand them, developing ever more ingenious puzzles. And while it may be unfair to compare this tiny, independently produced game to the undisputed pinnacle of the genre, it remains that The Unfinished Swan just doesn't do enough with its ideas. The black and white paint is, at its heart, just an interesting way to get from A to B. The vine level requires more patience than puzzle-solving as the player flings not paint but water around, causing climbable vines to gradually sprout up to previously unreachable areas. The night stage demands only that the player stays close to light sources as they move through the darkness, to avoid being mauled by photosensitive spiders.
In the end, the game can be breezed through in just a couple of hours, with no obstacle requiring more than the most obvious workaround. Hidden balloons provide an incentive to go back and search through each stage, but after the initial sense of wonder has worn off, there may be little desire to do it all again.
In fairness, the fairytale nature of The Unfinished Swan’s story strongly suggests that this is a game aimed at a younger audience, and when considered in that light, it does well to introduce the basics of the puzzle genre at a level that children will easily pick up. Unlike the best children’s stories, however, there isn’t much going on beneath the surface, and those intrigued by the game’s unique premise will be left wishing there was more to it than just a few clever ideas.