The reality of Swarm is not what we expected. Basing our judgement on screenshots and artwork, we dived in expecting a slow-paced, Pikmin-esque strategy game. We were wrong, but not necessarily in a bad way. The latest PlayStation Network title to come out of Hothead Games — the guys behind DeathSpank and the PSN port of Braid — is more of a puzzle-platformer than anything else. It's an enjoyable and surprisingly fast-paced affair, but it's let down by a catalogue of minor and serious flaws.
Coming from the team behind DeathSpank — minus Ron Gilbert this time — Swarm is a comically more subtle affair. But the humour is always there bubbling beneath the game's surprisingly dark exterior. The moment you boot Swarm for the first time, you'll spot a counter in the top right-hand corner. Similarly to the GMail megabyte counter, the number is constantly rolling upwards. Upon closer inspection you'll notice it's tallying the sum total of Swarmite deaths — the brainless blue-things depicted in Swarm's artwork, and the closest thing to a "protagonist" in the game. As the counter moves skyward, the main menu pops onto the screen. A quirky prompt implores you "not to press the Triangle button". Of course you do — and a gigantic axe falls down from the screen, chopping a large Swarmite creature in half. It's a subtle kind of humour that Swarm makes its own; mindless in execution, but actually kind of funny in its blandness. For us, Swarm is an infinitely more comical game than DeathSpank, but then we spent much of that game frowning and shaking our head.
The premise of Swarm's gameplay is immediately simplistic, but there's an underlying complication to its mechanics. At times the game feels like it's trying to do too much. Taking charge of a "swarm" of Swarmites, you spawn onto an isometric environment out of the tentacle of a queen-like monster. Controlling the swarm, your task is to collect a sequence of DNA strands to help the monster evolve and access new levels. Rather than giving you individual control of each of the Swarmites, you control the pack on a single analogue stick, using the DualShock's triggers to contract or spread the group.
As we hinted at earlier, Swarm is a much faster game than the screenshots let on. Collecting each DNA strand builds your multiplier, meaning there's a rush to keep your combo alive. As the environments become more hazardous, Swarm requires a mix of cunning and dexterity. Controlling around fifty Swarm creatures at a time, you'll inevitably lose some of your crew. Sacrifice is a big part of Swarm's gameplay. For example, the game's main method of attack — a kind of charge move — will always result in one of your group copping it. Likewise some difficult to reach items are impossible to collect without sending a dozen of your creatures into the pits of Hades. Once you actually begin playing, that death counter placed alongside the game's main menu starts to make a bunch more sense. Hilariously, killing some of your swarm actually helps you to keep your combo alive, so there'll be times where you'll make a conscience decision to kill off some of your troupe just to hit that top spot on the leaderboards.
While there are strategic reasons for the outright murder of your pack, you'll also lose a lot of critters by simply playing the game. Swarm is as much a puzzle-platformer as it is anything else, requiring you to carefully massage the controller's triggers and buttons to hit the top scores. Contracting your pack and releasing them allows you to boost, which you begin to realise is a key mechanic as you progress. Some leaps of faith will require your group to be moving fast to stand any chance of progressing, and thus you'll quickly find a rhythm that gets you across hazardous environments whilst limiting your Swarmite casualty count. It's satisfying once you get going, but fairly challenging to master.
Therein lies one of Swarm's biggest problems. The game is all about trial-and-error, and the controls aren't responsive enough to give you a chance to react. Some of the game's moves are not well explained, and difficult to execute. The control mapping isn't the greatest either, and while the boost mechanic depicted earlier works well, other commands — such as arranging your Swarm into a vertical stack — seem to rely on trigger and button mashing rather than any form of skill. While the Swarmites themselves are expendable, it's sometimes necessary to keep a specific volume of your pack together in order to release goodies from weighted pads.
And those weighted pads turn out to be very important in the main scheme of things. While the game's levels are fairly short, the ending can often be a curse in disguise. Reaching the conclusion of a stage does not always mean you've seen the last of it in Swarm. Indeed, the game's insistence on reaching score targets means you'll sometimes have to play some stages several times before you hit the necessary points tally to progress. Ultimately the time it will take you to see out Swarm's campaign is at odds with the amount of content on offer — this is a game all about level repetition.
While you're unlikely to feel compelled enough to return to a level after several attempts trying to best its base score target, leaderboards and time-trials do help to extend the action. But aside from a few boss fights and gory death sequences, Swarm doesn't do enough to provide a good range of variety, and you'll probably feel done with it before you see its conclusion.
For all its irritations though, Swarm is inexplicably enjoyable. Its slapstick humour and unusual mechanics make for a unique experience that's worth considering if you're a fan of fast-paced puzzle-platformers. The game's inclusion of occasionally unattainable score targets, hazardous level-design and unresponsive controls can make the experience frustrating, but when you maintain a rhythm, the satisfaction of your growing multiplier is worth having.