For those of you who, like me, made the decision to hold off playing The Unfinished Swan when it was originally released in 2012, now is the perfect time to jump on board, as it has been released as one of the free PlayStation Plus games for May.
The Unfinished Swan is a stylised adventure game, in which players take on the role of a young boy named Monroe, and essentially enter the pages of a children’s storybook. Similar to stories such as Alice in Wonderland, Monroe finds himself in a strange land with no knowledge of where he is or what he’s doing there. His goal, essentially, is to discover this through exploration. A recently orphaned child, Monroe in some ways embarks on an existential quest, learns something along the way, and comes out the other side a better individual… Or at least that’s what I think is supposed to happen – the depth of its storyline isn’t the most engaging aspect of the gamealthough it is very charming, and open to interpretation).
The real attraction here is in child-like exploration and wonderment. Where Alice in Wonderland or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are bright and colourful and almost overwhelmingly stimulating, The Unfinished Swan is the stark opposite – and therein lies its beauty. Starting with an entirely white screen from corner to corner, players may feel initially disoriented, as there is nothing on screen to determine movement. After a little fiddling with the controls, though, you should discover the ability to throw little balls of black paint. Here, the game opens up, as the paint you throw uncovers park benches, trees, and pathways hidden amongst the white.
Now, with some landmarks to guide traversal, players can manoeuvre Monroe through the world, discovering a long lost fantastical kingdom. Along the way, he’ll come across pages from a storybook, and soon enough he’ll discover that there are certain golden landmarks strewn about that he can make his way towards… Not to mention the duck prints left behind by the very Unfinished Swan that is the game’s namesake.
Of course, if this was all that constituted the game, it would get boring very quickly – there is only so much enjoyment that can come from a single mechanic. As such, the world is split into 4 chapters, each with multiple sections. The first, of course, focuses on using black paint to uncover the hidden world within. The second uses water balls in place of the paint. Initially these are used to highlight the world (as by this time in the narrative, shadows have been introduced into the white world, which negates the need for the black paint), but soon is used to manipulate moveable objects, and later still to grow super-fast-growing vines. The third chapter focuses initially on the use of light and dark, then on the ability to create boxes of varying sizes, as Monroe finds himself within a kind of blueprint-like environment. The fourth and final chapter, though? This is basically a summary of all the previous chapters, but also includes the credits as Monroe makes his way through “The King’s Dream”.
And yep… that’s it. Each chapter is no longer than an hour, and the fourth chapter includes the credits, which are creatively strewn across the environment. It’s an interesting idea, don’t get me wrong – there’s still narrative that occurs during the fourth chapter, and it all ties itself up nicely, but it’s all over so soon.
I’m kind of conflicted as to how I feel about it, to be honest. The individual mechanics are simple, and do become repetitive quickly but, in terms of pacing, I found that just as I was starting to get bored with one chapter, a new one would begin. However, with a whole chapter devoted to paint, and another to water, I found it strange that the third chapter covered two gameplay mechanics. While at first I thought the investigation into light and dark would be boring, I soon discovered it was what I enjoyed most (as I needed to guide a ball of light through a blackened area – the ball of light the only thing keeping away the nasties that were intent on eating my face). All too soon, this was replaced by the “create a box” mode, which was as frustrating as it was clever. Occasionally, the boxes that needed to be created were so precise that the camera was inadequate. It’s safe to say that box creation was far from my favourite, but even that was over quickly.
And the best mechanic of all – the thing that ramped up the tension and almost made the game feel like a storybook version of Alan Wake? The end of the third chapter, where players must race Monroe up the scaffolding of a construction site in an attempt to beat the rising water level – all while trying utilising the gameplay mechanics learned in previous levels. It was sublime, but… probably only lasted 10 minutes, if that.
Given the game grew out of a brief tech demo, it would be easy to dismiss The Unfinished Swan as itself being an unfinished demo itself – and perhaps that’s part of the point? It’s beautiful, it’s short, it kind of feels like a one-trick pony, but in the end, it leaves you wanting for more. In some ways, I can respect the developers for creating something that fits within their vision – the story suits the gameplay, then length suits the theme. It’s creatively gorgeous… but overall, it left me feeling unsatisfied.