The Unfinished Swan Review
I’m going to make this plain— Either you will appreciate The Unfinished Swan for precisely what it is, or you will always be looking for something that doesn’t – and perhaps shouldn’t – exist. This intriguing, innovative adventure from Giant Sparrow is subtle to the point of minimalism, simple but not necessarily simplistic, and rewarding for those who often smile at unique, interesting approaches to interactive entertainment. Are you in the this group…? If you are, read on.
As I said, the game is subtle. So subtle in fact, that whatever you do and whatever action you make feels significant and even jarring. Tossing paint adds a sudden jolt of character to a completely bare canvas and for me, it’s a significant artistic thrill to see the white-on-black contrast. There isn’t much in the way of exquisite detail and there certainly isn’t anything that qualifies as photorealism or CGI-level visuals, but that’s hardly the point. The paint effects are excellent, though, and the design is undeniably solid and engaging.
The music and effects emphasize the low-key, laid-back style by enveloping you in a mysterious world that remains fantastically charming throughout. The soundtrack is beautiful and the perfect accompaniment to such an adventure; it’s not about overtly enhancing or kicking up the adrenaline, it’s more about brushing the experience with a series of carefully selected notes. You’re always aware of the music but it never dominates the gameplay. It understands and accepts its role, which is to remain mostly in the background and lend an almost ethereal sensibility to the game.
In so many ways, The Unfinished Swan reminds me of a Thatgamecompany production. There’s such a great similarity in terms of the aforementioned subtlety and minimalist approach; titles like Flower and Journey held very little in the way of instruction or direction, and there’s a very good reason for that. At the start of Giant Sparrow’s surreal quest, you’re facing a white screen with nothing but an aiming reticule. You’re not told to do anything and if you aren’t familiar with the concept, you might just go, “Okay, uh…what do you want me to do?”
But it’s not hard. It’s never hard. Hit a few buttons and you’ll soon figure it out. You can use either the standard Dual Shock controller or the PlayStation Move; either works just fine, although the sensitivity of the Move can be slightly problematic at times. You start by shooting black balls of paint so as to discover a pathway and like the wind in Flower, you’re operating from a first-person perspective (but of course, you’re on the ground here). And as you progress, you’ll start to learn a bit about the fairytale behind the adventure, which, while cute, isn’t all that special.
It fits, though. You play as Monroe, a boy who now lives in an orphanage after his mother tragically passed away. He was allowed to keep one of his mother’s paintings and he selects her picture of – you guessed it – an unfinished swan. The swan will act as your guide through this bizarre yet oddly attractive world, so pay attention to your winged Virgil if you wish to advance. I will say that for a story-driven game, there’s a little less in the way of plot development than I would’ve expected. But that too can fit into the minimalist philosophy of the experience, right?
At first, you might think you only toss paint around. After all, that’s pretty much all we saw when the game was being promoted. However, that’s only the start; you will soon work your way through a number of puzzles, including one where you utilize aqua paint to water a vine. The vine grows, which in turn opens paths over walls. While it’s true that the game rarely (if ever) combines gameplay mechanics, in that you’re really only “shooting” at something, the developers continue to shake things up. Therefore, the pacing is good and although it can feel slightly repetitive and occasionally too easy, at no point will you be bored.
There’s also more than just white and black although that’s admittedly the default scheme. The world you explore is never the same and there is a fair amount of color later on, but as is typically the case with such games, one should analyze the experience as a whole. It’s short, like Journey, but the feeling you get upon completing is singular. Journey is a little more involved and certainly more accomplished from a technical standpoint, but in terms of creativity, general design, and an innovative approach to gaming, I’d say Giant Sparrow does a fine job and is even comparable to Thatgamecompany in several facets of development.
That’s high praise, you know. The only problem is that Swan doesn’t feel quite as fleshed out as it could’ve been. There’s this continual, creeping sensation that the developers either wanted to do more or were afraid to do more. Maybe they were worried about ruining the original subtle mentality and clogging up an otherwise austere presentation. Or maybe with such a small team, they simply didn’t have the time and resources to do more with the paint concept. As such, the game lacks that fully complete feeling that is commonly associated with Thatgamecompany products. But Giant Sparrow has time to learn and grow.
The Unfinished Swan isn’t exactly a masterpiece, but at least it aspires to mastery. There are few titles that take such obvious risks and attempt to give an increasingly mainstream population of gamers an inspired, original adventure. While some could accuse this particular game of being too easy, too cutesy, or too short, one is better advised to see the ambition and creativity above all else. You do have to make a few concessions along the way and it can feel simplistic and repetitive, but the end result is a game like none other. That, in and of itself, should be enough of a recommendation.
The Good: Highly artistic and well designed world. Beautiful music. Inspired use of a simple mechanic. Creative, nicely implemented puzzles. Accessible to all. Well paced and starkly presented…which is a good thing.
The Bad: Some may call it too easy. Lack of mechanical diversity. A tad underwhelming.
The Ugly: “A swan can’t be ugly. Even if it’s unfinished.”
11/5/2012 Ben Dutka