It’s difficult to discuss The Unfinished Swan without drawing comparisons to Journey. Just like thatgamecompany, developer Giant Sparrow has been taken under the wing of first-party powerhouse Sony Santa Monica. Furthermore, it has signed a three game exclusivity deal with PlayStation. Indeed, the only noticeable difference between the two studios is that the new recruit’s debut looks poised to better flOw in every single way. We’re already dreaming of that defining third outing.
If Journey conjured emotions of companionship and friendship, then The Unfinished Swan is all about darkness and discovery. We could write a textbook full of metaphors dedicated to describing our time with the first level of the PlayStation Network exclusive, but none of them would necessarily do the experience justice.
The title’s poignant plot tells the tale of Monroe, a young boy left lonesome after the death of his mother. A stylish cutscene explains that his parent was a keen artist, but lacked the attention span required to finish any of her work. The protagonist is given the opportunity to take one of his guardian’s illustrations with him to his new home at the local orphanage – and he chooses the portrayal of the unfinished swan.
The set up is simple but moving, and it sets a perfect scene for the gameplay that ensues. Surrounded by nothing but white scenery in an ambiguous dream world, your objective is to toss black paint balls from a first-person perspective and illuminate a pathway through the seemingly barren environment. As you toss paint, you pick out areas of detail, be it park benches, statues, walls or water. There’s a brilliantly balanced risk/reward nature to the mechanic: paint too much and you’ll obscure the details of your surroundings, but don’t paint enough and you won’t know which way to go. Unsurprisingly, the simplistic art style looks absolutely staggering in pin-sharp high-definition.
But it’s not the mechanic itself that’s the catch here – it’s the way it makes you feel. At some point, we’re sure every single one of you will have been lost in the dark, snatching at objects around you to find your way – and that’s the emotion that The Unfinished Swan replicates. You’re constantly probing the environment, looking for the next stepping stone in your journey. Despite the evident lack of urgency or danger, you constantly feel threatened. In truth, there’s nothing to be afraid of at all – but fear is intrinsically linked to the unknown.
And this is all ties into Monroe’s personal plight, too. Without the love and care of his mother, the protagonist feels lost and alone. He’s guessing his way through a fantasy world – but he’ll end up doing much the same when he returns to reality. It’s surprisingly heavy stuff for a PSN title.
The gameplay itself matches the quality of the concept, with a slick frame rate and familiar control scheme. Despite the evident lack of direction in the world, it’s hard to get lost – and, as such, the level design strikes an effortless balance between mystery and manageability.
In short, the whole demo left a profound impression on us that we’re still struggling to shake. Giant Sparrow has promised that the complete game will include more than just the paint mechanic, as the world expands into different themes. We can only hope that the full title hits the same emotional power chord as our short hands-on. And if it does – Journey might just have some competition come game of the year time.