The Swindle gives you 100 days to become the best thief you could possibly be so that you can attempt to break into Scotland Yard. The premise makes the game sound rather easy, but the reality is far from it. With shades of Spelunky and Rogue Legacy, The Swindle is reminiscent of the 16-Bit era of videogames when platformers took no prisoners. Learning how to play the game isn’t the hard part and the interaction with each randomly generated level is simple in planning, but getting everything tied together nicely is a challenge that many roguelike enthusiasts will enjoy. Although, calling the game a roguelike may be a little misleading. There are certainly elements of the genre here, but the progression your thief makes transfers to the next thief once your burglar eventually succumbs to a trap, a fall or a misstep.
So, you start out as a thief with no money and no skills. You’re presented with a randomly generated building to break into and the aim is, of course, to steal as much as you can. There are piles of money strewn throughout the building, but this is small fry compared to what is being held behind the firewalls of the computers. It takes little time to buy the hacking upgrade which then allows you to snag jackpot sums of cash. You can likely guess where you go from there – better skills are purchased, harder heists are unlocked and the game ramps up the challenge.
We asked developer Dan Marshall about the idea of difficulty in games today and The Swindle in particular, “I think quite a lot of The Swindle is me rebelling against over-easy molly-coddling games. It’s more of a BBC Micro/ Megadrive era vibe, where it’s not just a safe place to ‘get the feel for it’ and ‘it’s ok, you can’t go wrong and die’, it’s deliberately tough in the same way Spelunky/ MeatBoy/ Dark Souls are tough. And it’s rewarding for pushing through that. It’s a challenge. It presents you with something difficult and lets you get on with it. That’s the sort of game I’m *craving* these days, because everything feels so fucking watered-down. “Walk to a location and press X, have an achievement” or “Here’s how you open doors! Well done, you’re the best at opening doors”. The Swindle is the anti-that mentality”
That shows very clearly in how the game treats the player. As Dan says, there is no hand-holding, nobody is going to tell you how to hack a computer or break through a wall. The enemies won’t warn you of their intentions other than a basic line of sight – their attack patterns, sensitivity to noise, speed – all of this must be learnt on the fly. Yes, at times it’s very frustrating. When we first hit day 100 and were presented with a Game Over scenario, we were devastated. All those hours of work and suddenly we’d failed at The Swindle, we were sent back to the beginning with another wet behind the ears thief.
But, we learned. Suddenly it only took one day to learn how to hack computers. By day ten we entered the warehouse district and began to overcome new enemies. We were faster earlier, could jump with more agility and hack faster while leeching more money than ever from the pockets of the greedy. This is where The Swindle hits a wonderful sweet spot of risk versus reward. When you’re literally hanging onto a wall faced with flying drones, a brutish security bot and a surveillance camera then you have a decision to make. You can leave the level there, head back up to your steampunk airship with the few pounds you scraped from the floor, or you can gamble and use everything you’ve learned to enter the fray and walk away with thousands of pounds.
We asked Dan whether he was concerned that people wouldn’t see the depth of the game when confronted with a difficult first couple of hours, “It’ll require restarts, but honestly once you ‘get’ it it’s not a hard game. It’s just knife-edge brutal. As long as you’re having fun and laughing when you die, and you’re dying because it’s YOUR fault and not mine, then that’s the game. Someone asked me recently if I’m worried about the opening being hard, given Steam’s new “two hour” refund policy and honestly if I start designing games around refund policies just fucking shoot me.”
It will help that the game is genuinely funny and entertaining. The Steampunk aesthetic is wonderfully charming. The dingy backstreets of the first area soon make way for more glitzy environments, but they keep a rugged and surreal perspective. The art style by Michael Firman is inviting because it doesn’t take itself seriously. If The Swindle were to be created with real life modelling in mind, the game simply wouldn’t work as well. The atmospheric ramshackle style puts the player in the shoes of the thief, by suggesting that you’re both coming from nothing but with skill and determination you will reach the top. There are some lovely touches that could be easily overlooked, such as the street names of the places you rob, or the name of your thief (which is also randomly generated) or even the detail given to each thief’s appearance. Their individuality shows a marvellous attention to detail and there’s a lovely balance struck between genders and races, which is an important touch.
When you look at the developing history of Dan Marshall, The Swindle appears to be his most “sensible” game to date, but there is humour to be found. Although the game isn’t heavy on story, Dan’s style and flair is easily seen in item descriptions or introductions to new areas.
“I’ve always made ‘funny’ games, it’s in my nature. I’d find it very hard to write something po-faced, it’d descend into silliness sooner rather than later. The Swindle’s probably my most-serious work, and it isn’t serious at all, it’s still silly. The style, from the art to the music all reflects the kind of world I’m interested in creating – in this case, a sort of flippant steampunk London.”
I have to admit, when I first started playing The Swindle, I wanted to hate it. Some moments of twitch platforming grated me and mistimed swipes of my baton saw me getting spotted by drones, rather than knocking them from the air. But, there was a niggling itch under my skin that urged me to try one more heist. Here is where the addiction kicks in. Then, when I’d cleared the level of all of the cash and bought myself a new upgrade or two, I felt empowered to do more. I worked out small tricks to attacking enemies, I learnt the handling of the thief so that I could get in and get out fast. Then I was in love with what I played. Yes, The Swindle still broke my heart many times as I was spotted through a window and launched across the map by a speedy guard or I mistimed a jump and landed in front of the security cameras (if you’re spotted, the computers start haemorrhaging money, meaning less loot to swipe if you manage to hack it), but the levels are delivered as bitesize chunks, allowing for quick moments of play.
This will be an ideal game for the YouTube and Twitch gamers out there. Speedrunners will have a field day trying to complete The Swindle fast and in smaller numbers of days. YouTube will no doubt feature crazy moments and intense heists that pull you to the edge of your seat. And, therein lies the narrative. It isn’t about Dan Marshall et al constructing a linear story for you to follow, it’s about taking a thief, doing your best and finding something to brag about. The Swindle is about creating your own moments that are unique to you. It will break your bones, the police will catch you and you will fail, but you’ll have a blast doing it.
The Good Stuff
- Inspired art style
- Tight platforming mechanics
- Great concept
- Rewarding gameplay
The Bad Stuff
- Can lead to frustration
We proclaimed the brilliance of this game to friends and family. When we weren’t playing it, we spent our time thinking about it. Awesome!