It’s been a good long while since I’ve played anything this relentlessly weird. Every single level of Swarm opens with your controllable characters – all 50 of them – being slopped out of something that looks like a huge blue umbilical cord, by a gigantic blue creature called ‘Momma.’ Nothing disturbing about that.
Your Swarmites (for that’s what the tiny blue creatures are called) are on a mission to help Momma get bigger, which they do by gathering DNA from the landscape. In practice, this means you guide the lot of them across a series of horizontally-scrolling levels fraught with dangers ranging from pitfalls to homicidal robots.
When you boil it down, Swarm is a game based around performing a perfect run. To unlock the next level you need to have amassed a certain amount of points on the previous one. A multiplier builds up as you grab DNA, and in order to keep it up high you either need to keep grabbing DNA, or kill off Swarmites.
That’s right: killing off some of your 50 Swarmites keeps your multiplier high, so you need to balance keeping them alive (both to hit switches requiring a certain number of Swarmites to stand on them, and to actually make it safely to the end of the level) with getting them murdered to keep your score flowing. Making things a little easier are blue nodes scattered around the levels which spawn more Swarmites – up to a maximum of 50.
Swarm takes great pleasure in killing off your Swarmites, and this is apparent from the off: the title screen features a close-up of a single Swarmite, and while you’re fiddling with options or pondering hitting the Continue Game button, you can tap a button marked “Do not press this button” to kill him. He might be impaled, or cut in half, or incinerated, but he is most definitely made dead. This aspect certainly extends into play, with the game tracking the number of Swarmites killed in various ways and awarding medals for hitting thresholds – 500 Swarmites crushed, say.
You might think that controlling 50 characters at once is going to be an unusual experience, and you’d be right. What we have here is a clever half-way house between directly controlling one of them, and directing the whole bunch as you might if you’d drag-selected them in an RTS.
Essentially, you directly control all of them at once. I suppose it’s easiest to say you directly control the mass – if you move your analogue stick to the right then the Swarmites, on the whole, will move in that direction. If an obstacle is blocking a few of them, they’ll work out a path around it to get back to the others. If you hit jump, they’ll all jump when they roughly reach the same point. It’s testament to the clever controls that it actually feels remarkably natural after about thirty seconds, and I suspect it was no mean feat to get it that way.
They’re a versatile bunch, too. You can also have them huddle up together if you need to guide them down a twisting passage, or spread them out to grab DNA and hit switches quickly. They can climb on top of each other to form a weird blue totem pole, helping them reach higher areas. They can bash switches and crates, or be made to speed up to leg it through iffy areas. Again: it doesn’t take long to get used to controlling your Swarm, and that must’ve come down to a huge amount of testing and tweaking. I have nothing but the highest level of respect for whoever was behind this particular feat.
For all of the clever and intuitive controls, though, Swarm has one big problem: it’s frustrating as all hell.
Part of this is down to the camera, which has a fixed perspective off to one side of the level. In some ways it reminds me of early PlayStation 1 games, back when 3D was being added for the hell of it and no-one was quite sure what to do with it. Precision jumping is an abject nightmare thanks to the slightly skewed viewpoint, and trying to leap over death traps placed on a diagonal will have you grinding your teeth down to nubs as you repeatedly misjudge the distance. The perspective will get you killed by swinging blades, and the zoomed-out camera makes it hard to spot smaller traps on the ground.
Dying due to your own idiocy is one thing; dying due to an unhelpful camera angle is quite another.
But most of the frustration is down to the sheer trial-and-error nature of the gameplay. You need a certain number of points to unlock the next level, and you can irredeemably screw yourself if you’re not careful. Checkpoints can be welcome if you’ve amassed a huge amount of points already, but restarting at a checkpoint always resets your multiplier – and the multiplier really is everything. If you get your Swarm killed, it’s usually a better idea to just start again from the beginning of the level rather than from the nearest checkpoint, and as most levels are both hellishly difficult and between 5-10 minutes long, that’s never a pleasant thought.
The rest of it is down to the design of the game itself. You need to occasionally kill a few Swarmites to keep your multiplier high, but there are plenty of switches and areas that you’ll need a large amount of Swarmites to access. Only experience and repeated attempts at a level can teach you how many you’re going to need to reap the rewards of an upcoming section, and considering the difficulty I can guarantee you that – on finishing a few thousand points short of your goal – you will not relish the thought of doing it again. Beating a level is definitely rewarding, but I admit there’s a mild twinge of “I’m glad that’s over” tempering it.
The amount of frustration caused is a bit of a shame, and that’s coming from someone who loved Super Meat Boy. You see, there’s a lot to like about Swarm – the art style and slightly morbid focus on cartoon death are both a little reminiscent of World of Goo; there’s a dark sense of humour apparent; and Swarm really is quite unlike anything else on the market. The closest comparison I can make is probably to Trials HD, a game which is equally difficult and equally focused on getting perfect runs – but while that was about precision control of one character, this is about intelligent control of many.
If you have the saintly levels of patience needed to push your way through the game, you’ll find a compelling action-platformer which is perfect for those who like to try levels again and again to attempt a perfect run and hit a perfect score. Those with expensive TVs and poor impulse control may wish to refrain from picking this up, however, in case they end up hurling a controller through the screen.
Version tested: Xbox 360