It's a well-known fact that, back when Britain had an empire, you couldn't step into the foggy London night without occasionally tripping over the odd robot here and there. Every house and factory had a small army for protection, complete with complicated computers and pressure-sensitive mines. Like a pair of Queen Victoria's underpants, it was impossible to break into a house without risking a swift kicking where you'd rather not be kicked. This is the world that you enter when you start to play The Swindle.
The whole steampunk thing feels a little overplayed these days. Not because it doesn't work or even because it's overused, but so often it feels like an excuse to have shadowy graphics. It ends up average, an excuse to go with something a little bit quirky, but mostly safe. That's partly true for The Swindle. Its steampunk style – with metal rocket ships, zeppelins, and top hat wearing robots – is neat, but unambitious.
As for the game itself, each level asks you to sneak into a house, take as much money as you possibly can without being killed, and then escape. You can use the money to upgrade your skills or purchase new techniques, or you can buy your way into more luxuriant areas with a higher amount of wealth.
At its most basic level, the game is a 2D platformer, and in that regard it works quite well. This is particularly true when you start racking up upgrades, and you find that you have complete control over your character and the way that you get around. Add in a little bit of exploration and stealth gameplay and you pretty much have things summed up.
You're given 100 days to prepare for a big mission; each level you play equals one day. This may sound like a long time, but it really depends on how much you manage to fit into it. If you're lucky, and you get a bunch of simple levels that practically gift you money for next to no effort, then you'll be done and dusted well ahead of the 100 day time limit. On the other hand, failure, especially for any length of time, is really going to sting.
The biggest issue – if you don't mind the art – is that the game only ever really feels rewarding if you're winning. This sounds like a stupid thing to say, but it's absolutely true. If you're having a bad day and you don't make any money, you won't get any upgrades either, which becomes very repetitive very quickly. There's no great challenge to overcome, no horse to climb back up on – there's just a rapidly dropping number of missions and the same backdrops time and time again.
Each level is procedurally generated, so in theory you never get the same experience twice. There's only a certain amount of changes that can be made, of course, but there's enough variety in the algorithm to make it work. The only real time that you'll notice the code is on the odd occasion where the generation mucks up in some way, leaving all of the cash in an underground room that you can't get to or locking you into a position that you can't possibly get out of. These are few and far between, but it happens enough that you'll notice it during a single playthrough.
When you're playing well and you're not getting impossible to beat levels, The Swindle is actually a lot of fun. As you progress, you'll unlock techniques which are incredibly creative and great fun to utilise; it starts off slowly, but quickly gathers speed if you know what to spend your money on. Actually getting a perfect run, though – where you finish the game with the character that you started with and not one of their replacements when they (almost inevitably) die – is next to impossible, but more casual thieves will have some fun simply dipping in and out.
The problem is that there's just not enough substance to this to keep the average burglar occupied for extended periods of time. Aside from the artwork this is a great concept that's been rather well executed – we just can't shake the feeling that the idea could have been taken further in the right gloved hands.
The Swindle is a solid game, but it's a swag bag short of our full recommendation. As a title to play over a weekend – or between other games with more substance – it can't really be knocked, but don't expect to be feeling light fingered forever. This is a cunning con, a solid swizz – but it's been robbed of crime of the century status.