Earth’s resources are gone. Research stations have been dotted throughout space, with the aim of mining materials to send back home. You play as a crew member of the Theseus – a ship that’s been mining an uninhabitable planet rich in minerals. Whilst mining, the crew find a new type of rock that they bring aboard for research. It turns out the rocks are a sentient race, which becomes apparent when the rocks’ thoughts start entering the humans’ dreams. The humans call them “The Watchers”. After studying them, the researchers create a device based on their findings from The Watcher samples. The device is called “The Swapper”.
Much like the silent protagonist of the game, I went into The Swapper not knowing what to expect. What I found was a brilliant, sometimes infuriating 2D puzzle game, with platform elements and a complex, gripping narrative. It wasn’t long before I was invested in the story and once I was, I couldn’t help but push on with a compulsive stubbornness, but it wasn’t just the story keeping me there – The Swapper is quite unlike anything else.
The game is built around one gameplay mechanic: the titular swapper. This device allows you to create clones of yourself, four at a time, and swap your conciousness to them. You can place clones anywhere inside the screen’s frame, as long as it isn’t obscured by a blue light. Likewise, you can swap to any clone, as long at the beam – which is fired like a bullet – isn’t obstructed by a red light.
The Swapper is essentially an exploration game with cordoned-off puzzle rooms. You explore the research station until you come to a console that requires a set amount of orbs – these orbs are safely tucked inside rooms handily designed so that only you, George Cloney, are the only person who can solve them with your body-swapping powers.
When the character you’re controlling moves, all of the clones to do same, so it’s very easy to accurately set up a group of clones, with the puzzle almost solved, only to be foiled by your own finger spasm – a tiny correction can often send your clones careening towards the ground, dying with a macabre ‘squelch’. Often you have to use this hive-mind behaviour to your advantage, running your main clone into a wall so the one underneath keeps running in that direction.
The mechanics evolve in complexity, getting layered on top of each other, with the game forcing you to learn key skills before you can progress. One of these is the jump-swap. When you squeeze the trigger to place a clone, the action slows right down and a little outline appears signifying where your doppelganger is going to materialise. Since time slows, it means you can dive from the highest heights, slowing time before your body crumbles into a heap on the floor, placing a clone at a safe height and switching to them just in time for that ‘squelch’. It’s clever and feels intuitive.
Another great mechanic is what I like to call ‘clone climbing’, where you create a stairway of clones and phase up them, leaving bodies in your wake. Later, movable boxes and pressure pads are introduced to spice things up. These are often used in clever ways that aren’t immediately obvious and some of the later puzzles will make you so angry you’ll create a clone monsoon to vent your frustrations in a meaty shower.
The later puzzles really ramp up the difficulty when gravity inverters are introduced, but the feeling you get when you solve them after bashing your head against a wall for an hour is euphoric. Then there’s the odd moment of reflection, as you use the swapper’s propulsion to float through space – sections like this break up the pacing nicely. Exploration is never a chore, either – the map is simple and easy to read and the station has a handy teleport system so you can go back, as I did, and hoover up any uncollected orbs.
The Swapper is a beautiful and haunting experience with a BioShock-style narrative crotch punch toward its end. Once again, it’s indie games that are making a PS4 worth owning. The Swapper needs to be experienced.