Essential for any budding burglar – but technical problems steal the fun.
The command is simple: ‘Right.’ Your thumb darts across the Joy-Con, pushing the correct button firmly. A mechanical clock ticks rhythmically in your ears, combining with the gentle beep of a computer as the camera zooms in, shaking as it does so. A robot bobs up and down to the right of the screen patrolling towards you. ‘Left.’ Your digit obliges swiftly as more of the lavish room is quickly hidden from view as the camera continues its motion; the metal guard squeaks closer, only now out of sight. The milliseconds between button prompts takes forever. You can sense the robot shuffling nearer, closer and closer. ‘Up’. The artificial clack of nervous fingers on a keyboard emphasises the increasing pressure. You can almost feel the sweat collecting underneath your avatar’s brass goggles. ‘Left,’ again. A satisfactory ‘ding!’ fills the air as you fling Henry Beresford onto the wall, only just avoiding the yellow sight-line of the sentry, mere moments before being caught red-handed. But you have the goods. The pressure didn’t get to you this time, but there are plenty of other chances.
The Swindle initially released in 2015 to mild success as a self-dubbed ‘steampunk cybercrime caper,’ essentially shorthand for a 2D stealth game which involved a delightful combination of Victorian and steampunk aesthetics; the ability to be a right old, thieving bastard; and some of the best anxiety-inducing hacking in video games. However, because it’s 2018, Size Five Games’ creation now has a new, Nintendo Switch edition. With this comes two major questions which need answering: a) Does it still make you feel like a conniving crook and b) is the Nintendo Switch version the best thing in the world? Absolutely yes, and no – but it so could’ve been.
For the goody-two-shoes who managed to keep their hands crime-free and well away from the smoky scenery of The Swindle when it initially released three years ago, it places you with the task of stealing The Devil’s Basilisk – essentially a city-wide security system – which, if not nicked within 100 days, will put an end to any potential purloiners looking for a less than legal way of making a living. To get your grubby mitts on the career-ending device, however, you must make your way through five different districts, collecting as much coinage as you go. It’s no easy feat.
Aside from the first district, The Slums, each distinctive area of this alternate London requires a relatively hefty cost from your pretty purse to make it to the next set of levels as you continually work your way up into more affluent neighbourhoods, with security to match. To raise the illegal funds, you’ll embark on multiple heists in each of the different areas, hoping to come out on top. And this is where The Swindle’s core design starts to shine.
Every time you embark on a heist and enter your little steampunk rocket then plummet from your zeppelin – which hovers over London like the imminent promise of larceny – crashing outside a procedurally generated building full of money just asking to be snatched, a countdown begins. It’s not an actual timer, it’s more of a guarantee; at some point you’ll make a mistake and when you do, it could be over.
Each level has a random assortment of traps and robotic guards, relative in difficulty to the district you’re in, who try their best to stop your sticky fingers from snatching their client’s property. Aside from falling on spikes or setting off mines, the usual way your stealing spree will end is with being spotted and a good whack from a baton. However, if you manage to avoid the bludgeoning, you have a chance to snatch up as much money as you can before making your escape. Once the police arrive at the scene, however, they make your life much, much harder.
If you do manage to end up on the sticky end of the baton, your character is done. Dead. Your heist has failed and the consequences can hurt.
First, all that money you collected in the level, it’s gone – unless you successfully escape back to your airship with your haul. Second, you’ve wasted a day, reducing the overall timer by one, eking its way down to zero. Third, the character you loved with their funny moustache and dapper top hat, they’re gone. Luckily, 90 percent of the randomly generated characters in The Swindle look fantastic, so it’s not too bad. For every successful heist they complete they get a stackable bonus which increases the amount of money earned, though.
To avoid all of this, your thieves can equip themselves with multiple gadgets and abilities to help them avoid the trouble – don’t worry, these are shared across all of your kleptomaniacs. These include momentary invisibility, hacking and crucially, bombs, which allow you to start forcefully reshaping the environments. However, all of the little doodads cost your hard-earned money so it ends up being a balance of buying a gadget or saving to buy access to the next district.
But all of these individual aspects, from deciding to spend your money to advance through the game or instead better equip yourself; to the possibility you might suddenly lose a character and be further penalised by losing a whole day; to the hacking, which brilliantly uses simple command prompts while the camera zooms in; create tension that combines with a perfect soundtrack and sound design. It all combines to produce a constant pressure which can feel overwhelming, particularly on your first playthrough. But when you do a perfect heist, when you fly off in your airship without setting off the alarm and the game tells you how well you’ve done, the relief hits you – and it’s exceptional.
It’s a shame, then, that technical issues for the Nintendo Switch port frequently hinder the experience.
Lights blooming a ridiculous amount after you reach New Belgravia to the point they can obscure your view, framerate drops, enemies’ sight lines occasionally going through walls and doors, and bugs with clinging to invisible walls – these myriad issues can all be a cause of your death. It’s a pretty frustrating experience but there’s hope Curve Digital will fix them at some point.
In 2015 the PlayStation Vita demonstrated the strength of having a handheld version of The Swindle. It’s the perfect game for any burglar on the go who doesn’t have time to play games on their stolen 50″ telly and bootlegged PS4. However, they may want to wait for a bug-fixing patch before they nick the new Switch version from any law-abiding citizens.