As I’ve mentioned on this blog a few times now, the month of February has been a month of moving. My sister moved out of the apartment we shared for almost four years, and my girlfriend moved in. If you have ever moved yourself or someone close to you, you know what an all-consuming beast it is. Moving is big and hard and stressful. No exceptions.
And so I was grateful to find a small, relatively simple little game with which to numb my brain to the outside world which had grown even more chaotic than it had been for the past year. That game was, and is, The Swindle, from Size Five Games.
I was first introduced to The Swindle somewhere in the middle of 2020, through one of Mark Brown’s excellent Game Maker’s Toolkit videos on YouTube. He spoke very highly of it, and the game’s art style, gameplay, and especially its heist-pulling premise appealed to me. However, my video game “schedule,” so to speak, was already full at the time, so I socked it away in my brain for a future date.
That future date materialized, as these things usually do, through a minor miracle of happenstance. After purchasing Super Mario 3D World upon its release on the Switch, I found myself with some extra Gold Points to spend (Nintendo gives you cash back for each purchase on the eShop for you to put towards future purchases, more or less). The very next morning, I awoke to a tweet from the developers of The Swindle – I do not remember if I follow them, or if it was retweeted onto my timeline, further adding to the happenstance – announcing that The Swindle – along with a number of their other games – was on sale on the Nintendo Switch eShop. So I popped over and grabbed myself a free copy of this game I’d been meaning to play, care of my newfound Gold Points. You truly love to see it.
This was February 13th, T-minus five days until The Move, and thus prime time for something simple, attractive, and run-based to take over my brain, allowing me to disengage from an increasingly stressful situation. I opened my mind and drank deep, and I have been mostly very pleased with the experience.
The Swindle is a sort of roguelike, RPG-like heist game that sees you making repeated attempts to break into and steal from increasingly complex procedurally generated buildings without being seen or, failing that, before the cops show up or you are killed by one of the game’s many traps and robotic guards. You are given a 100-day timer to make your way through the city, gaining access to richer and richer districts, and preparing yourself to take on the final heist: stealing and destroying Scotland Yard’s new artificial intelligence before it can be switched on to start making your life as a Steampunk Cyber-criminal untenable. Should you perish in your efforts, the character you came to know will be dead for good, and another of your criminal organization’s ranks will take up the charge, with all the tools and abilities you had previously unlocked carrying over, and with the 100-day timer continuing to tick down. The catch being that longer-living criminals bring in bigger bonuses.
The game describes itself as a “Steampunk Cybercrime Caper.” In practice, this means that things look satisfyingly “old-timey,” every machine runs on steam, and you also hack computers, run programs, and fight robots. The art style and aesthetic on display here are really quite beautiful, with grungy airships, slapdash robots, glowing screens, and the smoky air of the industrial revolution all combining to form a solidly immersive world. The procgen nature of the game means that you’ll need to actually “case the joint” each time you load into a new map, adding to that feeling of trying to pull off a heist that so many games try and fail to capture. The Swindle also has the balance of risk and reward down fairly well. If you trip an alarm, you can choose to risk a run-in with the police, or a guard on high alert, by staying to grab just a bit more loot. Either you’ll die and lose all the loot you found in the first place along with your current thief, or you’ll feel like you pulled off the crime of the century.
I mentioned earlier that I’ve mostly enjoyed my time with The Swindle, and, unfortunately, there are some downs that come alongside the aforementioned ups. For instance, the game’s onboarding leaves much to be desired. I genuinely don’t know that I’d still be playing this game if I hadn’t been introduced to it via YouTube video. After a cutscene explaining the game’s narrative conceit, you’re really chucked into the fire with little in the way of tutorialization. While I appreciate a “learn by doing” approach to game design, the harshness of the game’s systems in regards to punishing failure left a bad taste in my mouth as a player just getting started. I would have appreciated perhaps just a bit more hand-holding as I learned just what was going on in this world.
There are also times where punishment feels just plain unearned. Some of this is down to what feels like sloppy collision and bugs that remain in the game a good six years after release. I’ve died in a pit of spikes after just barely missing a jump I felt I could make one too many times. And there are other times where I’ve died because…well, who knows why! Sometimes the action on screen is too busy or obscured by the sometimes-there, sometimes-not, always infuriating smoky blur effect layered atop the game to tell just what happened in the final moments before your death. It’s moments like these – these “wait, what just happened?” moments that nearly spoil what is otherwise an extremely enjoyable roguelike, one that just manages to pull off one of my favorite – and one of the most elusive – themes in video games, that of the heist.
In those moments of disappointment, I can’t help but keep thinking of Spelunky, another punishing roguelike. When I die in Spelunky, I never – not even once – think to myself, “that was not my fault.” Spelunky is so tight and polished, and more importantly, so clear and communicative, that I am always aware of what happened, why it happened, and sure of the fact that the failure was mine. What I wouldn’t give for The Swindle to copy Spelunky’s excellent “here’s why you died” screens after failing a run. Was it a bullet from a guard just off-screen? Or is there an element of the game – a new enemy’s ability, or some other mechanic – that I am not aware of? I would love to know! Those latter questions – is there something I’m not understanding about the game – are where the game truly fails for me. The risk/reward put forth by the game’s theme and punishing nature are worth much less for not clearly teaching the player why they failed than if it were better at doing that.
These failures are so frustrating only because it is very clear – at least to me, having played a dozen hours or so of this game – that The Swindle would be truly excellent, literally a world-class heist roguelike, if it just sanded down some of these rough edges. Unfortunately, six years out from release, it doesn’t seem likely that this will happen. It’s a real shame! Because The Swindle is a lot of goddamn fun!
Even with these “downs,” the “ups” of The Swindle have been enough to keep me coming back for more. The long-tail 100-day countdown approach to roguelike design, as opposed to instantly being kicked back to the start, really lends itself well to the crime-ring heist narrative, and the gameplay loop of trying to grab enough loot from each new building to both upgrade your abilities and gain access to the next area before time runs out really makes you feel like a master thief put on the back foot by emerging technology.
It was incredibly nice to have a quick, run-based game without too terribly much to get invested in to just zone out with for a while in the midst of a big move. And honestly, even now that that’s finished, I still can’t stop thinking about my next run.
The Swindle is available on PC, Mac, PS3, PS4, Vita, Xbox One, WiiU, and Nintendo Switch.