The Unfinished Swan is one of the few games I’ve been looking forward to since E3. The first minutes of gameplay completely encapsulate players in a new environment, and a new experience. I marveled at the play style back in June when it seemed so fresh and unique. Of course, at any convention, it’s easy to become elated with a game when the atmosphere itself is brimming with excitement, often of just being there.
For this game it’s too easy to be enthralled, and then bored. The Unfinished Swan, the first game made by developer Giant Sparrow, begins brilliantly but sharply declines in the level of complexity, difficulty, challenge, and discovery, the last of which has been the game’s defining feature. We follow a young boy named Monroe who, dreaming, attempts to catch an artwork swan that is always out of arm’s reach. But, as the title suggests, the animated Swan is incomplete, and is also the last remnant Monroe knows of his mother who has disappeared. It’s not a sad tale, but if you miss any of the dialog or hidden story markers, you won’t miss anything except learning a little more about a goofy king and hearing voiceover in an otherwise music-driven game.
The sole action in The Unfinished Swan is painting, which requires lobbing a slab of paint at any clean or plain surfaces. These blobs of black or blue paint, or on some levels a ball of water, spray the walls, floors, and ceilings with a high-contrast splatter. Aside from basic movement and jumping, that’s all players need to do: get to the end of the level just by painting. On introductory levels paint is the mechanism to produce all contrast in the game; without it all surfaces are plain white and completely invisible. As the game progresses it may be water, which can control plant growth. Blue paint later on is used to actually create new parts of the levels, meaning ground, stairways, ledges, etc.
This crude paintbrush should make all gameplay half discover, half first-person platforming, but the actual discovery is severely lacking. It’s too basic. The Unfinished Swan, while following a childish story, isn’t exactly meant for children nor adults specifically. It’s targeted for all ages. The only challenging parts are when you, as a player, get stuck and can’t figure out what to do. The sort where you figure it out instantly after starting again fresh.
To give you a better sense of what that means, imagine if Portal never got harder, it just showed you new puzzles using the same function over and over again with few differences between them, and then moved on to the next type of gameplay and never returned to the first kind.
With no room for personal growth in this puzzle game, one has to wonder whether it actually is a puzzle game at all. Discovery is only 10% of the game, and only that much because of how short the game is, the overall experience is unsatisfying and unfulfilling. If it were twice as long and introduced additional gameplay mechanics, produced actually challenging puzzles, and didn’t abruptly end with a race against time, The Unfinished Swan would feel less like a slow-paced no-challenge Jet Set Radio with ugly graffiti and more like Journey, where an interesting and artistic world lay new experiences behind every corner. As it is now, The Unfinished Swan lacks conviction, emotion, and to put it bluntly, is all too often boring.
In many ways, the entire game feels like it is intended to be an actual child’s journey, not a game for anyone to play, experience, and enjoy. The Unfinished Swan would work perfectly well as a kid’s actual fantasy. But not as a game. This sort of game to work on the iPhone for $1-$2, a cute little game that you can play while waiting at the doctor’s office, recommend to friends, and enjoy because it’s simple, somewhat thought provoking, but most importantly quaint. On the PlayStation 3, it feels unfinished and, more importantly, unfulfilling.
Bottom Line: An expensive PSN title that’s very short, completely unique, but lacks emotion, challenge, and is unsatisfying
- Smart graphical and music design
- Unique concept for a game – painting as a discovery and building tool
- The game has no challenge to it; puzzles are short, cheap, easy to solve, and lack depth
- Overall story is uninspiring, dull, and emotionless
- Extremely short with minimal replay value
- Expensive for what it is at $15