An unfinished piece of artwork is a curious phenomenon that begs for the answer to so many questions. Why was it abandoned; what are we missing out on from its lack of completion; did the artist move onto other things, or did they simply die before its finalisation? I feel that the central protagonist of The Unfinished Swan, a little boy named Monroe, is in need of having such questions answered. Going after one of his deceased mother’s unfinished masterpieces, a swan no less, he stumbles into an unpainted world of fantasy, adventure and intrigue.
The opening area presents you with a blank canvas; a completely white zone that needs to be navigated through using black paint splodges to reveal more of the environment. I found this to be one of the most novel parts of the game, as it encouraged exploration to find key landmarks that were once invisible, until they were coated with an inky covering. This lack of colour also aided in the promotion of my own artwork, as I could fire as many, or as little, paint balls as I wanted, to create a level that was truly individual. I would often find myself standing up on high ledges to look at my messy creations from above. There was a certain satisfaction in doing this, as the contrast between the dark and light areas heightened the beauty of any of my painted structures.
As the levels progress, this idea of creating your own blotchy world diminishes slightly, but that does not mean that the game begins to lack in any visual finesse or beauty. Everything has a certain starkness to it; a sparsity that is coupled with smoothness, popping colours, and sprawling architecture. Every setting has been carefully designed to produce a world which fits in correctly with the tone and concept of the story. Empty cities, towering castles, haunted forests and fearsome monsters all add to the game’s traditional fairytale motif.
Monroe’s tale is told through a series of storybook pages that are scattered throughout the world, needing to be found in order to receive details on the conception of not only the places that surround you, but of the titular character as well. The narrator does a superb job here of setting scenes and moods, and also provides a comforting voice that settles you snugly into a situation that may have felt isolated or foreboding without her soothing tones.
However, her job is not just to add warmth to a cold and lonely city, but it is also to make light of an extremely preposterous set of circumstances. I couldn’t help but laughing at the thought of a king painting shadows on every object in his kingdom, just so his subjects wouldn’t bump into things. The story is both a desperate scrabble for Monroe to capture the last remaining memory of his mother, and a hilarious slant on the desire for kingly greatness. The melding of the two ultimately gives The Unfinished Swan oodles of heart and charm, something which I feel is necessarily central to any game that puts so much focus on storybook adventures.
The deviation from an invisible to a visible plane between the first two acts was a welcome change, and provided a new form of game play that was more puzzling than exploratory. Later levels, however, make another change which is altogether less intriguing, and frankly more annoying. These levels focused on quicker movements, which I felt were not easily accommodated by Monroe’s slow moving control scheme. I would get trapped on objects that lay in my path over and over again, making the experience more frantic and less enjoyable because of a number of ridiculous deaths. To add to this, when I would get attacked by spiders, a piercing screech would erupt from my Dualshock, startling me and increasing the unwanted stress-factor of a generally peaceful game.
Thankfully, all of this nonsense was soon thrown away, when another new method of play was introduced, one that was immensely more fun. The middle section doesn’t take much away from such a wonderful and artistic experience, but it does still hamper it slightly. With it only taking around two hours to complete, I would have preferred to have spent more time in an area in which Giant Sparrow seems to excel: building a whimsical world centred around a genuine and heartfelt story.
The Unfinished Swan is a game which authentically encourages the artistic, the magical, the following of mystery and above all, the appreciation of childlike curiosity. It is a joy to play, and during my short time with it, I may not have been able to help Monroe find all of his answers, but I was certainly able to find delight.