In this week’s Breaking Down the Backlog, no worlds were saved but I did save a painting by throwing balls of ink about and discovered my family history in the process.
I had no idea what I was getting into when I played this game. I didn’t know if it was a walking simulator à la Gone Home or more of an arty first person puzzle game. Turns out it was a mixture of the two coupled with an excellent aesthetic and interesting puzzle mechanics. I was rather surprised with how much I enjoyed the game, if I am honest.
You play as an orphaned boy whose mother left him several of her unfinished paintings. One day the boy’s favourite – one of a swan – has disappeared, leaving an empty canvas. You clamber through the canvas and end up in a strangely quiet white world. As you explore this would you gradually uncover what happened to it, your mother and your father. It ends with a couple of fantastic twists that made me very happy , which is pretty much the perfect reaction to a late-in-the-story twist. There isn’t a story per se but you are told the background of this realm and The King through little fairytale-esque vignettes that you uncover as you play the game. Words appear on a wall and a woman with a pleasantly upbeat voice reads it to you. After reading/listening to these things little details in the world are given a whole lot more meaning. Banal things like canals and dinner tables filled with food receive context within the world instead of just being there ‘because level design, dawg’. It is feels unique even in this post-Gone Home world.
The story isn’t the appeal for The Unfinished Swan though, even it is quite good. The two things that immediately made me enjoy this game. It was the art-style and the game-mechanics and how those two things are innately connected. When you start the game, all you see is a reticule and pure white. After flailing around for a second or two, you press a button and throw a ball of ink that stains the world. Then you realise what you have to do. You have to stain the world with ink to uncover where to go. That is pretty much the crux of the game…at least that is what I thought to begin with. However, then they repeatedly build on that mechanic throughout the game. The second level involves throwing water to control vines. The third makes you guide glowing balls and hit lanterns to make them glow (my least favourite level). I won’t spoil what you do in the last quarter of the game, but holy shit it was awesome. The game became more free-form than I expected it to, I will say that much.
What really adds to the game is the sense of awe you have when you are near the end of a level. Usually the game will take you somewhere high above the area you begin. You then get the chance to look back and see all the ‘damage’ you have done. It is a fantastic seeing how the levels change as you traverse them. On top of that, the levels themselves transform as you get through the game. Each level gets a new colour scheme be it pastel blues and greys to black and purple to primary colours. It is all very tasteful and cool.
The Unfinished Swan is a very good game. Highly enjoyable to play, superb graphical design and it didn’t over stay its welcome, which is always a plus. If you have the option, you should definitely buy it on the Playstation 4, as the frame rate can get choppy on the Playstation 3. It wasn’t too noticeable, but it was annoying when it happened.
Next time in Breaking Down the Backlog: Catherine.