In exactly 100 days, Scotland Yard will deploy The Devil’s Basilisk; a new surveillance system powerful enough to eradicate crime for good. While that’s all hunky-dory for the citizens of England, as a master thief, it’s clearly bad news.
The Swindle is a 2D steampunk rogue-lite where your objective is to reach Scotland Yard within the 100 day time limit and steal The Devil’s Basilisk out from under them. It’s also really fucking hard. So hard, in fact, that neither Miles nor myself have managed to complete it for the sake of this review.
Without a tutorial, The Swindle throws you in to a number of procedurally generated heists; each with ample opportunities to hack and steal before making your way back to the airship. Like any other stealth game, it’s best to avoid detection altogether (known as ghosting), but getting caught isn’t always a disaster. Should you successfully reach the airship before getting pounded by robots, you’ll not only live to steal another day, but retain what you stole over the course of your botched heist. For the not-so-fortunate, getting hit, landing on spikes, or exploding in to wet chunks means losing your thief (and whatever they just stole) permanently.
“Having to turn right back around because I didn’t have the necessary skills is not only pointless and frustrating, but there’s always the threat of its 100 day time limit when things go south. And they will. Often.”
Don’t fret though! Thieves are disposable, and when one dies another randomly generated swindler eagerly takes their place. There’s big beefy dudes, old men, women, and although I never had time to become attached to any of them (since I died so often), I fully appreciate the developer’s ability to make each one visually distinguishable.
Your first thief starts in the slums, stealing what little money the poor have stashed away in order to progress the campaign and unlock more lucrative areas, like banks or casinos. Attempting a heist counts as 1 day (whether you live or die), so you essentially have 100 chances to earn money, buy upgrades, and beat the game. Similar to other rogue-lites like Rogue Legacy, Bardbarian, and Crypt of the NecroDancer, your banked funds can be used between heists to purchase new skills–double jumps, hacking, explosives–which is certainly rewarding and ensures that future attempts are at least a tad bit easier.
These skills are passed down from thief to thief, but should you fail to capture The Devil’s Basilisk within the allotted time limit, you’re forced to start over from scratch. No passing Go. No collecting $200. Just straight back to square one. Talk about a punch in the gut, right?
The RNG nature of the roguelike genre is always a blessing and a curse, ensuring that while you’ll never experience the same level twice, you’re completely at the mercy of the game’s procedural generation. Not only are you relying on the game’s coding to provide you with a heist that’s profitable, but one that you can even accomplish. The Swindle doesn’t care if you didn’t buy the explosive skill; you’ll still run in to heists that require it. Having to turn right back around because I didn’t have the necessary skills is not only pointless and frustrating, but there’s always the threat of its 100 day time limit when things go south. And they will. Often.
These worst-case scenarios aren’t really commonplace, but they’re frequent enough to potentially ruin a good run. The Swindle’s difficulty routinely skates a fine line between being stern and fair, while simultaneously being unpredictably frustrating. Again, I’ve yet to complete the game (and I doubt I ever will), but apparently once you’ve reached Scotland Yard you’re required to spend 400,000 pounds just to unlock it for one single attempt. Should you fail, you’ll need to farm 400,000 more in order to press your luck with another fully randomized layout. I’m not excited about this.
Sometimes procedural generation feels like a cheap attempt at extending the life of a game, but there’s something attractive about never experiencing the same level twice. I personally feel like The Swindle’s time limit feature would be easier to swallow without procedural generation, or vice versa, but I really didn’t care for the two in tandem. It’s one thing if I felt the RNG was implemented fairly, but there were plenty of early heists that required the use of hacking, explosives, or double jumps when it was far too early for me to even afford them.
“…I just couldn’t shake the feeling that The Swindle was forcing me to purchase *correct* upgrades in order to proceed. Player choice eventually felt like an illusion.”
With that methodology certain upgrades are basically mandatory, like hacking or using explosives, and I just couldn’t shake the feeling that The Swindle was forcing me to purchase correct upgrades in order to proceed. Player choice eventually felt like an illusion.
The Swindle is sure to please fans of challenging platformers and stealth games, but probably not one or the other. At times I found it to be more frustrating than enjoyable, especially after long stints of poor RNG–or perhaps starting over from scratch for the third time. It’s not all bad though.
The distinguishable art style, which is certainly one of the game’s high points, uses contrasting Earth tones with heavy outlines in order to craft some pretty memorable steampunk environments. Controls are also tight and responsive, from platforming to combat, so there’s no complaints there. What I’m not sold on, however, is its combination of unbalanced RNG, its forced time limit, and the persnickety upgrade system–so much so that I’m generally uninterested in ever playing it again.
It’s definitely not a game you should expect to complete on your first, second, or even your tenth attempt, but with each try you’ll notice a gradual improvement and a smarter use of your funds. If that’s somehow enticing, The Swindle should be somewhere on your must-buy list. After 5 hours, I just don’t have the willpower to give it another go. My soul is crushed and I am defeated.
Recommended for fans of: Insanely difficult games, roguelikes, rogue-lites, masochism.
*This review is based entirely on the Xbox One version of The Swindle, which is also available on PS4 and PC.