The Swapper - title

Since I have some extra time off for this holiday season, I'm trying to go through some of my backlog of shorter indie Steam games in between bouts of Cities: Skylines and Beyond Earth: Rising Tide. One such game is Facepalm Games' 2013's sci-fi indie hit, The Swapper, which I picked up in a Steam sale like a year ago. The game has also been ported to many consoles, including the PS3, PS4, Vita, XBox One, and Wii U, and the ports were developed by Curve Digital.

Making my clones do the deadly work

The Swapper seems to owe a lot to Valve's mega-hit Portal. Both games' central mechanics revolve around the player character using a futuristic non-weaponized gun (with 2 settings) to solve platforming puzzles and explore an environment. Portal is in full 3-D, whereas The Swapper is a more traditional 2-D side-scroller. The bigger difference however, is that the gun of The Swapper doesn't fire portable wormholes; instead, it allows the player character to instantly create clones of herself, and to swap her consciousness into one of the clones. Once created, these copies move in tandem with the copy that is currently being controlled by the player. The key to the puzzles is to maneuver yourself so that your clones can reach otherwise inaccessible areas or activate switches.

The Swapper - synchronized movement
All your clones move in synchronization, making relative spacing very important for solving puzzles.

The space station is laid out in an unbelievable, but serviceable, series of puzzle rooms joined together by modest platforming sections. At first, the platforming between puzzles is interesting because it kept me thinking along the lines of solving puzzles rather than just moving from place to place. But there's a lot of exploration and backtracking, and having to navigate the corridors between puzzle rooms quickly became tedious once using the swapper gun became second nature and automatic. Fortunately, the game provides handy teleporters to allow you to quickly move to key sections of the station, so the backtracking never became as problematic as it could have been.

The puzzles themselves start off fairly simple, requiring that the player simply point the gun and clone herself in order to reach a platform or cross a gap and collect alien orbs that you use to unlock new areas of the space station. The challenge quickly escalates. Soon, obstacles start getting thrown at you, such as colored lights that prevent certain operations of the swapper gun, forcing you to have to find more elaborate ways around the lights in order to reach your destination. You have to start using careful positioning, choreographed movement, gravity, momentum, and inertia in order to successfully solve the puzzles. And all this escalation seems to happen naturally based on the increasing complexity of the levels, rather than through the introduction of new mechanics or controls.

The Swapper - difficult puzzle
About an hour into the game, I ran into a puzzle that took almost an hour of trial-and-error for me to solve.

About an hour into the game, the difficulty suddenly spiked, and I ran into one puzzle in particular that took me quite a while to figure out. I even had to leave it and come back to it later with a fresh perspective. I thought maybe I was missing some kind of upgrade or needed to learn some technique that the game hadn't tutorialized yet, but that wasn't the case. Eventually, I figured it out, and the solution seemed head-smacking obvious, but I probably spent a good hour on that one puzzle (approximately half of my time with the game, up to that point).

There are also some other sci-fi mechanics such as the occasional zero-g spacewalk, gravity inversion (allowing you to "fall" up and walk on the ceilings), and so on. These all flow fairly seamlessly into the game; although, I did feel that the gravity inversion felt a little unnecessary when it was introduced. After all, the game teaches you fairly early how to use the swapper gun to effectively fly by repeatedly swapping to clones created above you. This "flying", is, however, limited by the number of clones that you can create, and it's still subject to being blocked by colored lights. So gravity inversion felt superficial when introduced as a means of navigating the station. Once the gravity inversion was introduced into the puzzles, though, I recognized its value.

The Swapper - zero-G spacewalk
You'll also perform the occasional zero-G spacewalk or invert gravity.

Any problems that I had in solving a puzzle were purely intellectual. Every control and mechanic is intuitive and comfortable, movement is responsive, and I almost never struggled with making the character do what I wanted her to do. All in all, the game plays near-perfectly. The puzzles are appropriately challenging; although, the exploratory nature of the game means that difficulty can wobble back and forth a bit depending on which puzzle rooms you reach first...


Lifeless Planet

Being someone who appreciates good science fiction and has an interest in real-life space exploration, it's easy for me to become intrigued with any game that promises to let me explore an alien world. Lifeless Planet promised to let me do just that, so it was a no-brainer Steam Summer Sale purchase for me last year, despite the mediocre critical reviews.

The basic premise of the game is that you play as a colonist sent to alien planet thought to be rich in life and habitable for humans. You wake up from cryo-sleep to find your ship has crash landed and your two crewmates are missing. Worse yet, the planet you crashed on seems to be a desolate wasteland devoid of life.

Are you even on the right planet? If so, where's all the life?

Lifeless Planet - badlands
And we're off to find our missing crew-mates and figure out why the planet is lifeless.

From here, you set off to follow the tracks of your fellow crew mates in an attempt to find them and figure out where you are. Things get complicated very early on when you find a long-abandoned Soviet village. Wherever you happen to be, the Ruskies beat you to it!

But this just opens up even more questions: how did the Russians get here? And where did they all go? The mysteries behind these questions are supposed to be the driving force behind the game.

The bulk of the game, thus consists of wandering around the various alien landscapes in search of answers. This exploration requires a moderate amount of fairly trivial platforming, and you stop occasionally solve an elementary puzzle.

Platforming is mostly comfortable and works adequately. You have a malfunctioning jet pack that allows you a small boost to elevate you to higher platforms, jump longer gaps, or soften your fall. I had some occasional problems with the character sliding off of the geometry, and there were a couple areas late in the game that required multiple jumps without stopping that were difficult to control accurately. But other than that, the challenge of the platforming was minimal. The intended route is always obvious, so there was never any question about where I was supposed to go.

Lifeless Planet - jet pack
Your jet pack allows you to clear pitfalls and jump over large obstacles.

Puzzles aren't much more of a challenge. They are almost all environmental or physics puzzles that vary from "find the key" to "put the rock in the hole" to "push the boulders". There's nothing here that a grade-schooler couldn't figure out.

The rest of the game is just a steady walk along the linear paths ...

Among the Sleep - title

This is a game that caught my attention back in the beginning of the year. I was on the lookout for new horror games to whet my appetite, and the novelty of this little Indie game had me intrigued.

Among the Sleep - teddy
The teddy bear actually comes off as a bit of a creeper at the beginning of the game..

The novelty of Among the Sleep is that the player character is a two-year-old toddler. I actually think that this is a very clever conceit for a horror game. The world can be a very big, scary place for a small child, full of things that are outside of the child's control and beyond the child's understanding. A young child is completely dependent upon its parents or caregiver, which makes them inherently very vulnerable.

Unfortunately, since the game is being played by adults, we can't play the game with the ignorance and naivety of a two-year-old, so we would see any real-world environment as exactly what it is: not scary.

So in order for this to work, the designers would have to be very clever in how the environments are presented. Easily he most effective part of the game is the early chapters when the child is lost in a closet and then exploring the house after waking up to find his mother and teddy are absent.

The first person perspective puts the camera very low to the ground, which makes the ordinary environments look large and menacing. The character moves slowly and clumsily (running for more than a few second results in the character falling on his face). Thus, simple hallways seem long and treacherous. Even interactions as simple as opening a door require a small amount of puzzle-solving since the character can't reach a door handle without climbing onto something. This section takes good advantage of the central concept of playing as a toddler by using the legitimate hugeness of the real world, and tapping into our own innate desire to protect and shelter children, in order to make the player feel small and vulnerable.

You even pause the game and access menus by covering your eyes with your hands! Hooray for a lack of object-permanence!

It is a promising start to the game.

But instead of expounding upon this and turning an otherwise mundane environment into an intimidating one, the design quickly shifts into a blatantly-imaginary, whimsical dreamscape. This disconnect from reality suddenly shatters the immersion of the child character, and squanders the inherent novelty of the game's central concept...

Among the Sleep - birthday cake
The mother plays an important role in the narrative,
but the player doesn't interact with her long enough to develop any attachment to her.

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Tomb Raider (2013) game banner

Crystal Dynamics really missed the point with this game. It seems like the creative team started the project with one creative vision to make a “lost on an island adventure story”, and then early on, they all got fired and replaced with people who were instructed by corporate overlords to make “Uncharted with a girl” and the final product turned into a mindless shooter.

Tomb Raider - limited edition box
The only things you'll be "surviving" for most of this game is bullets and explosions.

The game is called "Tomb Raider”, but the bulk of the game is an action shooter instead of exploring tombs.

The tagline on the back of the box says “A survivor is born”, and the first objective in the game is to find a bow and kill a deer for dinner, but then you don’t ever have to hunt or treat wounds or take refuge from the elements or do any other “survival” things.

A sheer majority of the game is shooting hordes of enemies in tedious gunfight after tedious gunfight after tedious gunfight. Maybe over the course of the game, you’ll stumble across a tomb or two. But if you do, it’s just a 15-minute detour while you solve a single environmental/platforming puzzle in order to collect an arbitrary and useless reward. The rest of your time will be spent running around the levels that you just cleared of bad guys and collecting random items.

Tomb Raider - hair physics
Hair probably isn't the part of Lara's anatomy that many ... um ... "fans" were hoping to see benefit from real-time physics, but then again, at least this is something innovative.

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This review was originally published 05/15/2011 on Game Observer (now defunct as of 05/13/2014). It has been republished here for archival purposes.

Portal 2

Portal 2 cover art

Yes GladOS, we brought you back to life because we really do love to test!

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t looking forward to this game. I love the first Portal, as it was about as close to "perfect" as any game has ever come, but I couldn’t help but fear that Valve might turn this into a franchise, and in doing so, some of the allure of the game would be lost. But the game was released, and it is a triumph. Mostly.

Apparently, a very long time has passed since the first game. The Enrichment Center is very different. Under the care of the watchful AI, Wheatley, the entire facility has been slowly falling apart. The degrading, decrepit test chambers make for much more interesting visuals than the sterile, white and gray chambers of the first game. They are now overgrown with weeds and vines, panels are falling off the walls, broken glass litters the floors, and fallen and bent metal beams and girders obstruct some of your paths. It’s just too bad that with all the debris and vegetation littering the environment, that none of it is interactive. It slightly breaks the immersion when you walk through dangling leaves and they don’t react to your passing at all.

There is a lot of visual variety in this game. You travel through the dilapidated chambers of the early game until the facility begins to rebuild itself. You watch it piece itself back together. Then you get to travel through the deepest guts of Aperture Science. And finally, you come back to see the test chambers tear themselves apart again

Portal 2 - co-op characters

The co-op puzzles are fun, but not terribly replayable.

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