Giant Bomb Review

50 Comments

Swarm Review

3
  • PS3N
  • XBGS

Swarm does no one thing particularly well, but it does enough things well enough to keep you coming back, even against your better judgment.

Imagine Pikmin, Lemmings, and Bulletstorm having some kind of creepy, scientifically denounced three-way baby, and you'd have something that resembles the makeup of Swarm. This strategy-puzzle-platforming thing tasks the player with murdering scads of brainlessly innocent blue creatures, all in the name of an ever-climbing score multiplier. The wanton destruction of cute things for the sake of points is certainly an admirable pursuit, but developer Hothead Games never quite manages to make a lasting impression. For all its precious murder, Swarm is a peculiarly bland game, more noteworthy for its inconsistent challenge level than its sense of humor. And yet, an odd, addictive quality remains...

 This dude? Totally going to die.
 This dude? Totally going to die.
The titular swarm you take control of is made up of tiny blue things, spewed forth in bunches of 50 by an Alien queen-like mother, who requires her brood to set forth across a harsh wasteland, collecting DNA strands to help her evolve into…something. The swarm is controlled as a single unit, which you can bunch up or spread out as needed, but which is always controlled via a single control stick. It's a blob of individual parts that can be shaped in a few different ways, depending on what obstacles are put forth in front of you.

Each DNA strand you collect goes toward building up your multiplier. Every stage comes stamped with a specific score that must be hit before you can progress (with the promise of high scores displayed on leaderboards for those who can master the multiplier), and achieving those scores requires careful, thoughtful navigation, and often sacrifice. Killing the members of your swarm isn't just an unfortunate circumstance, it's a necessity. Using the game's charge move to bust up boxes and enemies full of delicious DNA requires a payment of at least one swarm creature. Likewise, sometimes collecting difficult-to-reach troves of DNA means sending a few swarm guys to certain doom. Sometimes, you can even opt to keep your streak alive simply by making it a point to kill off some of your swarm.  
 
Killing them actually earns you points toward your streak, but that's OK, because you can always get more. Respawn points are littered throughout each stage, and while they won't just regenerate new swarm members forever, the frequency with which you can regain swarmites quickly trains you to understand that their death is a noble sacrifice, not to be mourned, but to be celebrated. Sadly, that celebration is short-lived. Once you start progressing deeper into the game, what little joy one might extract from the mildly amusing deaths of the swarmites will be quickly replaced with enervating frustration.

 You can't make an omelet without breaking a few blue guys.
 You can't make an omelet without breaking a few blue guys.
Swarm is a game of blind progression. Traps and pitfalls are rarely telegraphed with much warning, leaving you to simply react. That would be fine, were the controls more actively responsive. One mechanic, where you have to stack the swarm members atop one another in a leaning tower of squishy blue, is all but useless. Gaining perspective on where you need to be to hit the tall thing you need to hit with your stacked swarm is difficult, given the game's static side-view camera angle, and even getting the swarm to stack is inconsistent, given the required button-mashing commands and the sluggish, awkward reactions of the swarm. 
 
Even running away is a chore. You have to constantly dart forward using the dash mechanic, which requires you to hold down a trigger button, release and press another trigger button over and over to keep dashing forward. Alternately, you can use the speed jump (which replaces the second trigger with the jump button) but the result is the same. The swarmites, hard as they try, cannot always keep up with the flurries of commands you sometimes have to toss at them, resulting in accidental deaths. Yes, they are expendable, but oftentimes you don't want them to die, as you'll need larger numbers to activate switches that release higher volumes of DNA.

The end result is a game that is requires less brainpower and more hope and prayer for success. This is a game in which finding the end of the level is often less a blessing than a curse, as all too often you'll happen upon mother's awaiting tendril and realize you're thousands of points away from the clearing goal. This means that many stages will require multiple plays. Similarly, you'll repeat many of the same level sections again and again as you fly blindly into obnoxiously obfuscated traps. Occasional bouts with bosses do little to improve matters, and by the time you reach the game's final levels, you'll be crestfallen to realize that all that irritation you've endured was over the course of a relatively small handful of levels. You can get a solid several hours of play out of Swarm, but most of that will come from level repetition.

That tentacle is either a sign of glorious victory, or soul-crushing defeat.
That tentacle is either a sign of glorious victory, or soul-crushing defeat.
Swarm also just isn't quite celebratory enough when it comes to its desire for death. If you're going to make a game about squishy-cute genocide, it makes logical sense that you'd want to make it as funny as possible. Hothead occasionally flirts with amusingly gratuitous violence, offering closeups of the last members of your herd being impaled, burned, electrocuted or suffocated right before you have to restart a level section. But more often, the death takes a backseat to the action on screen. It makes sense that the developer wouldn't want to break up the action with constant highlights of death, but even the moments where it does choose to spotlight the splatters of blue blood and swarm carcasses aren't especially funny or entertaining. There are the game's "death medals" which signify your progress in meeting certain death goals ("progressive death medals" and "mega death medals" are also included), and the game's title screen does let you kill a single swarm creature over and over in a variety of different ways. But beyond that, the game's brand of adorable sadism just isn't fetishistic enough to stand out.

And yet, for all its shortcomings, Swarm is a game that somehow inspires you to keep playing. Maybe it's just because its primary idea--treating your swarm like a herd of lambs to the slaughter all for the sake of keeping that multiplier high--is such a solid one. Even as the level designs seek to frustrate you beyond measure, the game remains strangely addictive. If this were simply a bad game, you'd give up and move onto something else. But something at the core of Swarm keeps you coming back, despite all reason to the contrary. Through gritted teeth and skyrocketing blood pressure, you keep playing those same levels again and again for reasons that cannot be, well, reasoned with. I don't know if I can call Swarm fun, but I don't think I can call it not fun, either. It's something inexplicably in between.
Alex Navarro on Google+