A significant majority of games teach you to press on in the face of adversity, to attack the obstacles you face until you’ve bulldozed your way through them. Even when games give you an obvious defensive option, such as XCOM – where you can retreat if the mission goes horribly – it always seems to be better to try and plough through and finish it because the penalty for not doing so is high. That brings us nicely to Steampunk Heist game The Swindle, which makes retreat a sensible, logical option, and doesn’t heavily punish you for it.
The Swindle’s concept is a neat one. Set in Steampunk London during the Victorian era, it bears a passing resemblance to Valiant Hearts in terms of its 2D visual style. Having a beautiful hand-drawn look, it fashions an identity of its own thanks to the splendid character and item design that deserves to be seen in motion before it can be properly appreciated.
You play as a randomly generated thief (usually given a particularly chucklesome name) who’s out to get the biggest take possible from different, procedurally-generated buildings without raising the alarm. This happens during a one-hundred day period before Scotland Yard employ a new surveillance tech that will render your thieving ways obsolete. Standing in the way of that objective are mainly security guards who roam each building, but the twin factors of upgrades and the procedural generation can be a far bigger enemy.
You may find a building has areas you cannot access or tech you cannot hack until you buy certain upgrades, and as each heist is procedurally-generated, the only real option may be to take what you can and hotfoot it back to your escape pod (did I forget to mention your base is a dirigible?) with meagre earnings to show for it. Try to push on into an area you haven’t got the requisite skills for and your ridiculously-monikered master thief will surely meet their demise, and when they’re dead, that’s it. The next randomly-generated thief takes their place, letting you keep any money you’ve banked, the skills you’ve purchased, while all the days you’d previously used up remain gone.
This serves to build pressure the further you progress. Too much greed could cost you heavily on later missions, so casing a joint before deciding if it’s worth the risk becomes essential and, in turn, so does the option of retreat. The balance to that is you need a certain amount of cash/skills by the time the hundred days are up, meaning you can’t just plod along picking up small amounts of loot each day/heist if you want to be in a prime position for the finale. Juggling that with the need to spend some of your take on upgrading your skills provides extra stress to your situation.
At times, The Swindle will seem grossly unfair; a setback of being procedurally-generated is that any heist can end up being near impossible through no fault of your own. You’ll get something out of those missions, but as I mentioned earlier, it’ll be loose change in the grand scheme of things. The other side of this coin is that the game can throw up wonderful heists as well, ones perfectly suited to your skillset and full of easy money. You can have a truly wretched run for days on end and suddenly get one of these heists that sees a huge upturn in your profit margins.
As you progress, the game begins to throw more and more obstacles at you, such as remote mines, security cameras and killer robot guards and again — the procedural nature of The Swindle means you could avoid them completely or find every viable cash source heavily guarded. So while being procedurally-generated could be viewed as a negative, the game ultimately works because of it. It’s a slightly imperfect balance, but the flaws are undeniably part of The Swindle’s charm.
You will fail horribly quite a lot early on as you get to grips with the initially fiddly controls and your thief’s lack of abilities. It’s a tough game, and the soundest route to mastering The Swindle is to use your first playthrough as a springboard to the second. Learn the ropes, find out what skills and equipment cost, what enemy patterns are, and then start over once you feel confident enough.
It’s a system reminiscent of the PC turn-based stealth title Invisible Inc (which is also coming to PS4 soon) and to a lesser extent, XCOM, in that you are always a step behind during the first playthrough, struggling to stay afloat or even failing miserably. Yet the compulsion to correct those mistakes on a second run is there and gives The Swindle a shot in the arm in terms of longevity. The random nature of each potential score means you can never truly ‘’game’’ the system, but you can at least learn how the individual parts work and prepare yourself accordingly. In the end though,all the logic and planning in the world can be undone by a little bit of greed, and The Swindle plays on that superbly.
The opening hours of The Swindle are likely to be the dealbreaker for many. Frustration and repetition could well set in early for some players and understandably not everyone has the time/patience to master a game. In fairness though, The Swindle’s short, sharp heists give you less reason to get fed up quickly as failure can be rectified almost immediately by starting another. I’ll beat that ‘’procedural generation’’ drum again as the manner in which it offers up a different setup each time helps maintain a freshness something like say; Stealth Inc, couldn’t manage. It’s worth adding that The Swindle is deceptively simplistic underneath the many upgrades and the way it rolls out new enemy types. Even with the injection the aforementioned freshness, it does start to show signs of repetition eventually for even the most ardent of players, but by the time that moment comes, you’ll possibly of had your fair fill of it anyway.