Review | The Swapper

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Full disclosure: due to my ineptness at puzzle platformers, the helpful Adoboros handled puzzle-solving, while I watched and occasionally gave him useful ideas.

When launching The Swapper, the first thing I noticed was its atmosphere (pun not intended). It’s not horror-game-tense or oppressive. Instead it’s somber and melancholy, a tone I’m unused to seeing in games. The next thing I noticed was its uncommon style. Every location and character model was hand-made in clay then digitized through photographs to create a unique world. It’s diffcult to understand just how much work went in to crafting the game, especially as it runs at 60 frames per second.

The Swapper opens as a lone astronaut is ejected into space inside an escape pod. When the pod lands, you take control of the silent astronaut, and start to explore the doomed spaceship Theseus. The remaining crew are hiding in a sealed chamber, so your path is isolated and your exploration uninterrupted … until the scenery starts asking philosophical questions.

Many celebrated indie games use a small world to grapple with large questions, and The Swapper tackles some of the biggest questions possible. Who are “you”? What makes “you” aware of being “you”? What does being aware, being conscious, even mean?

A screen of in-game text which says "The limits of language are the limits of knowledge. Our name was not their knowledge. They thought of us as 'Watchers'".

In university, I studied a “Psychology of Consciousness” module which talked about these same questions of continuity, identity, and consciousness. So I enjoyed revisiting those questions via the unsettling plot of The Swapper, and I appreciated the references made by the names of other characters and the ship itself.

During The Swapper, your aim is to help the remaining Theseus crew land the ship. You do this by exploring the ship, Metroidvania-style, to collect orbs that open up new areas. Unlike in a Metroidvania, your player character doesn’t rely on finding new skills and upgrades: her only tool is the titular Swapper, which becomes available in under 10 minutes of play.

The Swapper device has two functions. By pressing the left bumper or trigger, you project and place clones of the player character. By pressing the right bumper or trigger, you “swap” control with whichever clone the beam is aimed towards. Every clone repeats your movements step for step unless they are blocked by a wall, while coloured lights block the Swapper beams and so limit where you can place or switch clones. Later puzzles involve perfectly aligning multiple clones so they activate separate switches at the same time, and juggling clones in midair using a technique that feels like the puzzle-game version of a quickscope.

A puzzle game with only one puzzle-solving tool might sound restrictive. But in the same way that Portal could fit many escalating challenges into the concise rule “speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out”, The Swapper provided hours of challenges from one major rule “where you go, the clones go”.

Exactly how many hours depends on your puzzle-ability and on how readily you search for a walkthrough. For puzzle genii, collecting all of the orbs and reaching the end will take 3-4 hours, while searching for the near-invisible secret terminals could double that time. This short-seeming runtime is well-judged; there’s time for the plot to start slowly and ramp up, but there are no filler puzzles or momentum drops once the plot starts moving. After finishing the game, Adoboros described it as hitting “the Portal sweet spot”.

Overall, The Swapper offers a handcrafted trip into an unusual, thought-provoking world. Its lack of mainstream conventions, add-ons and expectations means you can stay in the game’s quiet space without having your focus and immersion broken. The game doesn’t try to trivialise the broad questions it poses, and instead aims to make you think about what choices you’re making in order to reach the end.

If the idea of a rock giving you an existential crisis doesn’t scare you away, I’d recommend trying The Swapper out, especially if you are (or you know) a fan of puzzle games. It’s also available on Game Pass, so Xbox players have no reason to avoid giving it a go.

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