It’s dark, cold, and rain is pelting down on the tiles above. Despite the loud creaks of the wooden floorboards, your presence seems to go unnoticed by the guards. But you fall down a shaft and, in the view range of a bot, set off the alarm – panic sets in. It’s too high to climb back up, remembering that you decided to go into this heist without purchasing the Double Jump skill. The cops swarm down the hole and it looks like this is where Eli Inksmasher’s journey ends.
There are plenty of moments like this from Size Five Games’ action-roguelike, The Swindle. Set in an alternate London in the mid-1800s, players are tasked with retrieving a highly valuable piece of tech called “The Devil’s Basilisk”. But, to get there, you’ll need to break into buildings, hack security systems and steal as much cash as possible before the cops arrive. More money will grant the option of unlocking additional areas on your way to the final level containing the Basilisk – with each new area containing more loot and even more hazards. Size Five Games’ version of London has all manner of enemies wandering around: Robotic guards, hovering sentry guns, security cameras, thorned snakes, and attentive metal crows. It has an undeniable Spelunky-like feel to it, which isn’t a bad thing.
This tense 2D platformer gives players 100 days to complete their thieves’ mission. Completely plausible in retrospect, but to a first-time player it’s a tough ask. You start out in Area Zero: The Slums, where you’ll be getting a feel for how to dispatch guards, manoeuvre a building’s inside and outside structure and eventually escape the area without a hitch; these are your introductory levels. Here, unlocking the first Hack ability as quickly as possible is invaluable to progressing along the skill tree and unlocking the next tier of levels. You’ll pick up small wads of cash on the ground, but it’s really the computers you are after – containing astronomical amounts of funds.
The shacks, mansions, warehouses, and banks that make up The Swindle are procedurally generated and each level is as beautiful as the last. This keeps every heist fresh and yields limitless variety to the game. The Slums cover a grimy set of locations often bathed in smoke and perfectly depict a seedy underbelly of a fictitious London setting. Background graphics further exemplify this, with several tiers of housing on top of large hills with a red sunset doused in thick haze; this is a unique and very attractive art-style.
Couple this with top-shelf sound effects and a stealth-centred soundtrack and the result is an extremely immersive title from Size Five Games. The in-game volume of weather effects changes if you’re indoors or outdoors and there’s lots of nice little additional soundbites, like sliding down a wall, scurrying across rooftop tiles, or breaking in through a window; the amount of realism helps you focus on the job at hand.
There is an impressive list of skills on offer and players are given free-rein to decide which skills best suit their play style. You may want to purchase bombs to open up a sealed off area, or, to remain out of sight, invest in a remote detonator to activate any nearby mines. Some of the more expensive tools include a robot confusion ray giving players their own temporary sentry turrets and bugs that, when placed close to computers, transfer money straight into your account.
The latter is a useful item taking into account the sheer stress and congestion of enemies you’ll encounter later on in the game. Without the use of bugs, players are only rewarded their haul if they complete a heist and, with such intelligent AI on board The Swindle, there is nothing more frustrating than seeing one of your thieves falling into a pile of spikes or being shot down amidst a sea of your collected cash.
In spite of the high amount of challenge and strategy involved in actually finishing The Swindle, the game’s difficulty escalates. It is surprising how quickly 100 in-game days flies by in The Swindle and, at times, it is very hard to progress. Every foe moves at a different pace with their respective sight lines – often overlapping – and the game teases you with a risk-reward approach to increasing your haul. Graduating to area three, New Belgravia, ups the ante in terms of level design scale and enemy overcrowding; it’s a bit of overkill, that’s for sure. Players are given more time to plan but far less time to react when things go wrong.
It’s a great feeling to execute a well-planned, secure route, but evading the attention of each robot’s contrasting view range makes every level an arduous task. Scaling roofs will not guarantee safety, as Sound Bots and Crows, and Robo Cops will do their best to cover every approach. Occasionally, players may suffer from control delays and irregular hit-boxes in these areas. Numerous times, my thief failed to jump, landing into an enemy-infested corridor or a floor covered in thorns. On approach, mines would also explode without warning before I had the chance to hack them.
When the game itself is so engrossing and addictive, small hindrances like this affect the game quite significantly. Furthermore, the opening few levels of the game completely seal off areas containing high-value loot. This design choice makes no sense considering players aren’t in a financial position to purchase bombs, which would allow that area to be explored. This is one example of how The Swindle shuts players out of obtaining more money – leading to higher bonuses after a successful escape.
Even though you’ve taken the role of a scheming band of thieves, and the versatility of your skills eventually adds up, one hit from your robotic adversaries results in instant death. Of all the useful skills on offer, The Swindle does not have a ‘block’ ability when your melee strikes fail. Though this is an unusual absence, it is understandable as being a thief is all about bypassing hand-to-hand combat and using outside means to your advantage.
The team at Size Five Games have done a fantastic job with The Swindle. Its randomly-generated levels constantly keeps players on their toes and the in-game music and unique graphics help set the mood. Its difficulty is sure to scare a particular brand of players away but, for those who decide to stay until the end, The Swindle is a powerful mix of stealth, stress and satisfaction.
Hayden fancied himself as a competent gamer of the stealth genre – but that was before he played The Swindle. One session saw him rage quit after losing six thieves, consecutively, in The Casino section after holding 100% of the loot each time. A review copy was obtained from the publisher.
A lot of hard work yields a nice reward.