Developer: Giant Sparrow / Publisher: SCEA / Played on: PS3 / Price: $14.99 / ESRB: Everyone
Very rarely, games come along that are so wild and free with their creative expression they defy genres and dismantle clichés bolt by familiar bolt. The Unfinished Swan is one of those games. There is very clearly so much emotive quality that was poured into this game, you can’t help but feel it as you play it on your TV screen. From its fairy tale story to the amazing visual presentation, every little piece of The Unfinished Swan is magic, an example of incredible design, vision, and originality that simply isn’t matched anywhere else.
Story & Presentation
By now you’ve probably seen the empty austere white world that The Unfinished Swan presents you right out of the gate. This is just a small taste of the environments found in the game. In fact, contrary to expectations, you will not spend the entire game splattering black paint on blank white surfaces. The game does a masterful job of layering more complex shadow and color patterns to the world as you saunter through each stage of the game. It’s this slow build of visual fidelity that textures the amazing environments you’ll get to explore, adding to the atmosphere and gameplay, giving the world a palpable spirit. I would like to go into more detail, to really convey how the amazing world design ties into the gameplay design, but doing so would spoil the experience dramatically, as wandering and discovering are two key tenets to The Unfinished Swan experience, the soul of the game.
Instead, I’ll tell you about the story, a charming and delightful tale of a boy named Monroe whose deceased mother was an avid painter, though she never painted any work to completion, and here is where the game’s namesake comes into play. Upon waking, Monroe follows his mother’s painting of an unfinished swan, which has come free of its canvas, into a magical door that leads to a world of monochrome. This swan will coax Monroe (and by proxy you as a player) to continually move forward and see the game to its touching, fantastic conclusion.
Playing The Unfinished Swan is pretty straightforward: you see the world in first person through Monroe’s eyes, moving from point A to point B in each stage, solving simple puzzles and moving the story along. For the majority of the adventure, there are only two buttons: jump and throw paint. But Giant Sparrow has come up with some inventive ways in which this gameplay can be applied, from covering surfaces in paint so you can see, to manipulating the environment to solve platforming challenges. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Part of the satisfaction of the playing comes from seeing how you’ll be expected to navigate the sweeping vistas and surroundings, of which there are many beautiful examples.
You can also try and find the game’s hidden balloons, which are placed in almost every stage in secret, out-of-the-way locations. Once you tag a balloon with paint, you’ll be able to “spend” these balloons on various rewards, including in-game abilities like stopping time, or erasing all of your splattered paint.
Really the only aspect of the game that could be considered negative is its length, which clocks in at a couple of hours. But I don’t see it that way; there are no wasted movements or features here. There’s no fat, no superfluous design. It’s clear that every moment, beginning to end, was honed and refined, distilled down to its core, leaving The Unfinished Swan with a purity that a lot of games lack. Sure it may only be two to three hours long, but every second of those two to three hours is satisfying and full of content. Like Portal and Flower, the game never overstays its welcome, making the most out of the time it gives you.
Like any good multimedia experience, the audio is fantastically implemented. The world, while stylistically flat, is brought to life by the deft use of ambient sound effects to help fill in your imagination. The Unfinished Swan is a true multisensory tapestry, as while you may not be able to see the entirety of the world, hearing the lapping of water by the pond, or the whistling of wind on top of an enormous tower gives your brain enough of a puzzle piece that it can fill in the rest. The richness of the environments thus lives in your mind, and in some ways I was brought back to early text adventures, in that I had to imagine the setting and happenings on the screen. And that’s really one of the major themes of The Unfinished Swan: imagination is limitless and more capable than anything we can create in reality, and this is reinforced by every audiovisual element of the game.
The music, too, is pleasant and appropriate. The lilting melodies that punctuate Monroe’s adventure never overpower the majesty of the setting, but they set the tone of each scene, conveying curiosity and fear, adventure and mystery. This delicious aural sundae is topped by some great voice acting from the principle characters, including Monroe himself, who never speaks, but will react vocally to situations, like when he leaps from tall heights or seeing the titular unfinished swan flying off in the distance.
The game would have been a shadow of itself without the audio elements, and it nails them perfectly.
The Unfinished Swan is a dream, a dream journey that you can recollect when you wake up and want to share with all your friends because of how unlike reality was. The game constantly changes as you play through it, lending a feeling that anything can happen. It doesn’t pigeonhole itself into any particular style or type, it simply does what it wants as you tag along for the ride. The word unique gets thrown around a lot in gaming, but The Unfinished Swan is truly unique, an experience not to be missed. It will show you that games don’t need combat to be engaging, and they don’t need color to strike a chord with your imagination. Simply put, this is one of the best games of the year, and my very favorite gaming experience of 2012.
+ Touching fairy tale story
+ Creative use of color
+ Seamless blend of gameplay and art
10 / 10