The Unfinished Swan starts with a blank canvas and a single stirring idea. Blinded by grief following the untimely passing of his mother, protagonist Monroe finds himself locked in a fantasy world littered with problems that mirror his own. Feeling purposeless without the guidance of his guardian, the orphan is forced to deduce his own direction forward. And so, armed with an inventory of infinite paint, he embarks on an expedition with the intention of eliminating his own personal sorrow.
Giant Sparrow’s poignant PlayStation Network exclusive prompts a deeply affecting adventure. The ever-evolving experience takes you on a roller-coaster of emotions, as it flits between grey-scale gardens, formidable forests, and hand-drawn homes. This is a game that refuses to rest on its laurels, and it fashions one of the most captivating campaigns of the year as a result.
Indeed, the paint mechanic that’s been pivotal to The Unfinished Swan’s pre-release promotion represents just a small slice of the overall experience. Tossing bullets of black paint into the encompassing emptiness allows you to uncover pathways, park benches and statues. The concept effortlessly mimics Monroe’s plight, as you’re forced to feel your way through the nothingness in order to progress. It’s a delightful idea that conveys the sensation of blindness, isolation and claustrophobia. But impressively, it represents little more than the prologue of a much more epic adventure.
By way of narrative exposition hidden in the world, it quickly transpires that the colourless courtyard you’re forced to fumble through was constructed by a haughty monarch known only as the King. Following some less than favourable feedback from the empire’s inhabitants, the snooty sovereign decides to paint shadows onto the geometry – and so the experience evolves.
This kind of progression continues throughout the course of the adventure, as the vacant void from the campaign’s opening moments gradually grows into a stunning kingdom stacked with extravagant architecture and high-faluting horizons. The strength of the art-direction leads to some of the most staggering vistas and set-pieces you’re likely to see all generation – and the predominantly slow pace of the title begs you to stop and stare at the sights surrounding you.
In many ways, The Unfinished Swan shares similarities with Portal. Like Valve’s exceptional puzzle platformer, Giant Sparrow’s debut plays out from a first-person perspective – but it breathes new life into the ageing genre. As opposed to causing death and destruction, Monroe’s constantly creating with his viscous bullets – be it pathways using paint, plant life with water, or geometry during the game’s sublime but short-lived blue-print missions. Each environment links into the next, creating a seamless romp through an absorbing wonderland.
There are so many interesting ideas introduced throughout the title’s four-hour running time, that it would be difficult to squeeze them all onto the page – and it would be a disservice to do so, too. Part of the game’s real pleasure is anticipating the next set-piece or mechanic waiting around the corner – but particular highlights include a sprint downstream chasing an orb of light, and arguably the most impressive credits sequence you’re ever likely to see.
Technologically the title’s a masterpiece. With the help of first-party powerhouse Sony Santa Monica, incubated outfit Giant Sparrow has concocted one of the best looking games of the year. The thing that’s most impressive about The Unfinished Swan’s Escher-esque environments is just how sharp everything looks. You’ll struggle to find a single jagged edge or murky texture during your time with the title, which leads to an eye-poppingly sharp image at all times. In a way, it’s a shame that the game’s not coming to the PlayStation Vita, because there’s no doubt it would have looked absolutely outstanding on the system’s five-inch OLED screen.
The game uses colour to interesting effect, either to highlight your direction or pick out certain details. A single stained-glass window passed mid-way through the adventure isn’t especially important to the plot, but its saturated pattern has stuck with us long after the campaign’s conclusion. Under the control of more careless designers, The Unfinished Swan could have been a confusing title to traverse – but Giant Sparrow knows just the right moment to catch your attention and drive you forward. As a result, you won’t spend much time deliberating which direction to go, which is impressive considering you spend a chunk of the experience completely blinded.
That’s not to say the title wants you to find everything on your first journey, however. The Unfinished Swan is swimming with interesting things to discover, many of which aren’t even linked into the overarching adventure, but add context to the fiction and universe. There’s even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod to a certain other PSN exclusive smash hit.
But, for as much as the visuals are a highlight of the experience, it’s the soundtrack that really steals the show. Like the sparing use of colour, there are moments when you’ll hear nothing but the calming backdrop of nature. Of course, these periods of solitude only make the introduction of the full soundtrack all the more pronounced.
Composer Joel Corelitz uses a real mix of tones, from the harsh electronic sounds of harpsichords, to more traditional orchestral arrangements. But it’s when he combines these disparate elements that the audio really comes into its own. There are some seriously scorching synth sounds that wouldn’t feel out of place on an Owl City record, backed by some more subtle arrangements that scream Danny Elfman. The mix of flavours really complements the world, which itself is a little muddled up.
But for all our praise of the presentation, The Unfinished Swan is perfectly playable game too. It’s never a mechanically dense title, but Giant Sparrow finds ways to introduce new puzzles. Whether you’re constructing makeshift platforms or guiding fast-growing vines – the game’s always giving you something new to think about. And when it’s not, that’s usually because it’s encouraging you to drink in the scenery.
The title’s designed with the DualShock 3 controller in mind, but it also supports the PlayStation Move. When using the motion controller, familiar first-person rules apply; you point to the edges of the screen to rotate your character, and use an on-screen cursor to aim. While you get much more precision out of your paint tosses this way, some of the platforming sequences can be a little harder to navigate. It’s up to you whether you decide to employ a Navigation controller, but we’d recommend you do. Using the Move’s face buttons to control your movement is limiting, even though it works exactly as advertised.
It’ll take you about four hours to beat The Unfinished Swan’s campaign, but there are numerous collectables to encourage you to keep playing. Each level has a number of balloons to gather, which can be spent on unlockable ‘toys’ such as a slowdown mechanic and chapter select. There’s even a balloon radar that helps you to find the remaining goodies if you missed them during your first playthrough.
The Unfinished Swan is the second generation-defining downloadable from Sony in eight months. Giant Sparrow’s debut is a confident, creative tour-de-force – and it’s one of the most imaginative adventures you’ll ever play.