Release Date: October 16, 2012
Developer: Giant Sparrow
The Unfinished Swan started off as a student project created by Ian Dallas while studying at USC. What began as a simple prototype about exploring physical space, though, eventually evolved into something quite special. The final product is a fully realized first-person, exploration/puzzle game that taps into the curiosity of players and really makes them feel like kids again. When you also take into account the game’s beautiful visuals, unique gameplay mechanics, and its impressive soundtrack, The Unfinished Swan ends up being a very memorable experience.
The story in The Unfinished Swan is a simple one, hearkening back to the fairy tales that we’ve all grown up with. Monroe is a small boy whose mother suddenly passes away. She was a painter, and while she started hundreds of different works, she was never able to finish any of them. After her passing, the orphanage that takes in Monroe only allows him to keep one of the paintings, and so he chooses the unfinished swan which was always his mother’s favorite. One night he notices that the swan has disappeared, and so he takes his mother’s silver paint brush and follows its tracks through a small door which he had not seen before.
This takes Monroe into an all white world that is only revealed when he throws black paintballs at it. As he explores this world, he uncovers the details that are right under his nose. Everything from chairs and trees, to even living creatures like frogs and bats inhabit this world, but nothing is revealed without the power of the brush. The developers behind the game, Giant Sparrow, have done an amazing job visually and artistically in these early levels. The graphics are sharp and very clean, and the effect of splattering different objects and is not something you see very often. But the beauty of the game really comes out as players get further into the adventure.
At first glance, one might think that you’re destined to exist in a black and white world, but nothing could be further from the truth. Slowly but surely the game introduces gray in the form of shadows, with some light colors eventually making a debut as well. Seeing baby blues, golds, and lush greens cover a mostly white world later on is strangely beautiful. I won’t spoil the final levels, but just take my word for it when I say that the game goes into some very interesting directions both in terms of story and art. The way the narrative is presented is excellent too, with the story told through empty canvases found throughout and nicely done cutscenes. However, what helps move the story along the most is the great narration on display.
The voice acting here is very well done and almost feels like someone is reading a book to you. The voice cast even includes a notable name: famed actor and director Terry Gilliam, who does a great job playing his character. In the music department, The Unfinished Swan offers an excellent soundtrack that perfectly captures the storybook feel that the game is going for. It’s very subtle at first, but it becomes more prominent later on. It is fully orchestral, memorable and really helps to underscore the game’s story and gameplay. The game’s atmosphere is worth mentioning as well, as it provides for a very relaxing experience. There is no time limit or enemies trying to attack you directly, so you’re free to explore the world at your own pace. This is a game that anyone can play and enjoy, no matter how much experience you have with the art form.
Besides its overall presentation, the biggest strength of The Unfinished Swan is most certainly its gameplay. It starts off simple enough; you are dropped off into a white room and start revealing the environment with your black paint as previously mentioned. The game takes a very minimalistic approach to its design, which applies to everything from the graphics to the user interface. Control wise, you can use either a standard PS3 controller or the PlayStation Move. Both work quite well, though the Move makes the experience a bit more engaging and direct. Using the Move also allows for 2-player local co-op, where one player controls the camera and movement, while the other shoots. It’s a nice little bonus and quite fun if you have a buddy to play it with.
The Unfinished Swan’s gameplay is ever changing though. With each chapter, a brand new mechanic is introduced that takes the focus away from the previous one. For example, the first chapter is about using black paint, but the following chapter is about using water to grow vegetation. It keeps things fresh for sure, but you do end up wishing that each mechanic was expanded upon a bit more. I also wish that more had been done to link the various gameplay styles together. The first two styles tend to flow well together, but the last two are bit more disconnected. That’s not to say they’re not interesting and fun, though. In fact, waiting to see what the game would do next was a joy in itself. While most AAA games are afraid to deviate too much from their established gameplay tropes, The Unfinished Swan does it fearlessly and without hesitation.
To me, the game’s mechanics provided the most surprises, which is why I won’t divulge too much about the later chapters and what they entail. Spoiling the game’s story is one thing, but when it comes to The Unfinished Swan, spoiling its gameplay is an even bigger sin. This is especially true near the end when the two are intertwined in very special ways. The less you know about what the game will throw at you, the better the overall experience will be, in my opinion. I will say, however, that the game’s final two chapters were powerful, immersive and quite memorable, with the last few minutes literally giving me goose bumps. It’s rare for a game to do that to me, with the most recent being Journey.
The similarities between the two games in terms of feel are definitely noticeable too. And while it may not reach the levels of thatgamecompany’s magnum opus, it certainly comes close and offers plenty of moments that will certainly make you say, “Wow.” I believe that the only thing the game needed to really hit a home run, was possibly an extra chapter to help expand upon and balance out the already established gameplay styles. This would have made the game’s transitions between chapters smoother, and added to the game’s length. The Unfinished Swan isn’t very long at around two and half hours. The experience feels fine at that length, though an extra hour with the game’s various mechanics would have served it better.
Besides that, there’s really not much else negative I can say about the overall experience. There are some noticeable framerate issues at certain points, and while they’re a bit annoying, they don’t hurt the adventure in the long run. Once you do finish the story, though, there are a number of nice extras to indulge in. Throughout the levels there are numerous colored balloons that you can hit. Doing so unlocks special toys like a sniper rifle which shoots long range paintballs, or a hose that fires balls very rapidly. You can also unlock over 70 pieces of concept art and even the game’s original prototype which started it all. These provide a unique perspective on the concepts behind The Unfinished Swan.
Overall, The Unfinished Swan is a remarkable first attempt from Giant Sparrow and I cannot wait to see what else they have in store for us. While thatgamecompany’s contract with Sony is over, I believe the torch has successfully been passed on to this brand new studio. If this game is any indication, I believe the team will continue the trend of highly original and artistic games that the PSN has become famous for. If you’re looking for a game with excellent level design, striking visuals, superb music, and fresh gameplay, then The Unfinished Swan should definitely be on your radar.
- Art direction is unique and beautiful
- Soundtrack is memorable and used very effectively
- Gameplay is unique and keeps things interesting
- Narrative is wonderfully told and makes a great bedtime story
- Atmosphere is pleasant and relaxing
- Framerate issues during certain sections
- Gameplay styles could have been expanded upon and linked together more effectively