The Swindle is a difficult game, make no mistake about it. Sometimes the difficulty stems intentionally from its design, and at other times it’s due to kinks inherent to the way it was designed. Over the course of 100 in-game days you’ll sneak, steal, clobber and die your way across a Victorian Steampunk interpretation of London, on a mission to thwart the government’s ultimate surveillance tool. Fail and you’ll be forever out of the thieving game, succeed, though, and you’ll be free to rob from the rich, the poor and whoever else you come across.
Having caught word that Johnny Law is introducing aforementioned all-seeing surveillance technology known as “The Devil’s Basilisk”, you and your band of thieves resolve to steal it. However, you’ll have no chance of infiltrating the Basilisk if you and your crew have no working capital – you’ve got to start at the bottom to get to the top, after all.
Starting in the slums, you’ll break into people’s homes to steal their savings – you won’t make a killing, but the money you earn will help you buy the upgrades required to pull off more daring and dangerous jobs.
Just like Spelunky, each level you visit has been procedurally generated, meaning you’ll never know what’s coming next.
Money bags, robotic steampunk guards, banking computers, surveillance cameras and other devious traps will always be in different places, keeping you on your toes. Rushing in for the steal is never the best option. It’s still viable, but never as rewarding.
Typically, levels play out in the same fashion:
- Survey the building from all angles
- Identify surveillance points and enemies
- Find where the cash and computers are
- Plan escape route
I found myself using the above formula throughout The Swindle, to varying degrees of success.
Enemies each have their own field of vision, breach it and the alarms will go off, and the police will shortly be on the scene. Cue erratic music as you attempt to batter enemies, drain the cash from computers using a button-mashing QTE, and then make your way back to your escape pod. You’ll face stiff resistance from the coppers as they sweep the building, and ocassionally crash through it in their airship.
If you fail a day will pass and another thief will take your place. Succeed, however, and you’ll return to your airship with bags of loot.
In the early stages of the game I found myself stuck in a vicious losing cycle :
- Identify cash
- Identify enemies
- Identify cash I can’t reach because I don’t have the prerequisite skills.
- Trip alarm.
I was stuck in that loop for longer than I’d like to admit, a fact that made me resent the game’s core design ever so slightly.
The beginning stages reward your skill with only paltry amounts of cash, a mechanic which brought me great displeasure. To afford even the most basic upgrades you’ll need to successfully drain each stage of as much cash as you can. No easy feat given the lack of a tutorial.
Be it intentionally or unintentionally, The Swindle dangles larger cash payoffs in front of you, despite your inability to reach them. Fortunately, acquiring the hacking skill and a handful of bombs changes things for the better, allowing you a degree of freedom in how you approach things.
New challenges and enemies constantly shake things up, and you’ll need to alter the way you play accordingly if you want to relieve your victims of 100% of their cash.
The game expands significantly as you acquire more loot. Enemies become faster and more abundent, security fixtures like cameras and drones appear, and more possibilities for mischief present themselves. The Swindle never closes a door without opening a window, so to speak. Likewise, your squad of master thieves also get an upgrade with better hacking abilities, stronger attacks, more bombs and jumping skills. It’s up to you where you put your hard-earned (!) money.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter what upgrades you have though, the game, by its very nature, can be completely unfair. On more than a few occasions I found myself unable to access computers due to there being either traps below or exploding/spiky enemies that kill on touch. Your experience may differ, but the game’s procedural generation may require some fine-tuning.
When I wasn’t tossing my controller across the room out of pure frustration, I was having a great time. Once you have breached The Swindle’s tough outer shell it comes into its own. With a few upgrades on board you’ll be ducking, diving and robbing your way from the slums to luxury stately homes. Extracting the stealth gameplay of Stealth Inc and injecting it into Spelunky is the closest comparison I can give, and it works exceptionally well.
The simple gameplay loop of stealing, upgrading and moving on to the next location to pull off even bigger heists was compelling enough to keep me returning for more, even when I wasn’t doing too good. The promise of a shiny new toy to play with, and the resultant evolution of each level, meant I never got bored, even when I felt the game wasn’t being entirely fair.
If you can forgive its minor issues The Swindle is sure to make off with a little piece of your heart.