The Swindle

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Size Five Games for PC, Mac, PS3, PS4, Vita, Xbox One, and WiiU, originally released in 2015.
The Swindle mixes steampunk and cyberpunk to create a world where the player faces off against clockwork robots and hacks computers to override security systems and steal loads of cash. The game takes place in an alternate London in the year 1849 where Scotland Yard are about to activate an artificial intelligence program called The Devil’s Basilisk, which will effectively put an end to thievery of any kind.


As a master thief, you must gather enough resources – through a series of burglaries – to eventually steal the AI itself and put an end to their plans. You have 100 days to implement your plan before the device is activated, and this countdown hangs over your head the entire game. If you can’t complete your mission by then, it’s curtains for you... lacy, gently wafting curtains.


The master thief plans his missions from an airship hovering above the city, and once he selects a location to rob, he drops down in a metal pod. The game takes place across six themed areas, and each set of buildings is procedurally generated. Whether you complete a heist or get killed along the way, each attempt costs you a day, so you need to understand the basics quickly and make use of the game’s many upgrades if you hope to reach the end of the game before your time runs out.


You begin the game with no abilities and no money, and your default security level is only enough to get you into the slums. There’s not much money to be found there, but security is light, allowing the player to get used to the basic mechanics. The player begins with a 1.5x nonvariable jump, as well as a wall slide and a wall jump.


Early in the game, guards follow simple patrol routes and have a short sight range, and they are unable to detect sound, allowing players to bumble their way through the opening areas without much fear of failure. Much of the cash to be stolen is lying out in the open, but greater scores may be found by hacking computers and blasting through walls in order to reach other sections of the building… but these abilities must be purchased.


By bringing enough cash back to your airship, you can access a workbench and begin purchasing upgrades. Many of these upgrades are prohibitively expensive in the early going… When you’re only pulling in £1,000 during a heist in the slums, a £40,000 upgrade is impossibly out of reach, but later areas offer greater rewards (and dangers), allowing players to make these purchases by taking on riskier jobs.


Some upgrades enhance your basic movement abilities, allowing you to unlock a double jump (and eventually a triple and quadruple jump), the ability to stick to walls, and the ability to hit harder with your baton to disable guards. Better hacking skills allow you to perform hacks more quickly, as well as hack into computers, hack locked doors, and eventually hack security stations to disable ceiling-mounted surveillance systems.


A number of gadgets are available as well, including bombs that can blow holes through solid surfaces, a steam purge that temporarily hides you from the searching eyes of sentries, bugs that syphon money out of computers, and the ability to detonate mines to damage enemies from afar (even from behind walls) or blow out a generator which sends out an EMP. However, players must be careful when setting off explosions, as this can also damage computers and reduce the amount of money pulled in on the job. Players may also purchase goggles which point them in the direction of the computers and security stations, making it easier to plan a more lucrative heist.


Earning large amounts of money is paramount to success, as each new area is blocked by a security level, which requires an ever-increasing amount of money to access. Leaving the slums requires £4,000, but reaching the next area requires a whopping £25,000, after which the prices move into 6-digit figures.


The need for cash and the ever-dwindling countdown clock are the basis for the game’s risk/reward system. Each time the player enters a level, he has to choose whether to go for it and clean out every dollar to be found, or play it safe and head back to his airship once he has gathered a significant sum. If the player is discovered during a break-in, the guards go into high alert – shooting on sight – and the police are called. If the player is killed before reaching his escape pod, he loses all of the money collected in the level, as well as a day of progress.


However, chickening out and leaving early also costs the player some potential bonus money for collecting everything in the level and successfully hacking everything. On the other hand, keeping your thief alive has rewards of its own, as each successful heist grants the thief a multiplier which can greatly increase the amount of his haul. If a thief is killed, he is replaced by a new (procedurally generated) thief and the bonus is reset to zero, but all purchased upgrades carry over.


The difficulty escalates quickly, and by the third area, players will be facing off against multiple types of clockwork guards, often packed together in small rooms. These include some basic ones with short range vision, some faster ones with a longer range, and some slow-moving heavies that take multiple hits to kill. In addition, there are floating searchlight drones which can set off alarms and others that can also shoot you, as well as tiny hopping drones, and flying explosive drones that take four hits to destroy. Players can also be killed by environmental hazards, such as pits of spikes and mines, as well as fall damage.


Most guards cannot open doors, which makes doors a great hiding place, as you can stand behind them and wait for a guard to reach the door and turn around, and then open the door and attack the guard from behind. However, robots with microphones can detect noises at a long range, such as breaking windows, explosions, and hard landings, and they will pursue you through regular doors. Other doors must be hacked to be opened, so it’s important that you purchase this skill early in order to fully access each facility. It is possible to get around most obstructions with dynamite, but you can only carry so much per mission.


Hacking is an important part of the game, and it’s a skill worth mastering early on. Each device is hacked in the same way, by performing a short QTE that requires players to hold the HACK button and press in the indicated directions at the same time. The more you’ve upgraded your hacking skills, the fewer directions you need to press in order to be successful.


Hacking is used to break into computers to steal large amounts of money and to open doors and disable other security measures. Failing a hack can spell instant death when hacking a mine, or it can sound the alarm, giving the player a limited amount of time to get out of the level before the invincible police force arrives and kills him. Some alarms also activate metal security gates, trapping the player in the room until he can hack (or blast) his way out.


In addition to the dangers of alerting guards by tripping the alarm, your money-making prospects are damaged as well, as guards will collect any cash lying out in the open, and computers will slowly lose money. After an alarm sounds, the best you can hope for is to make it to one or two computers and get your hack on quickly before hightailing it to the exit.

Or, even better, plant a bug that syphons money out of the computer slowly over time. This not only nets you a goodly amount of cash, but the bug keeps working after you level the level, even if you’re killed. Having a couple of active bugs can quickly fill your coffers while you’re out performing other heists. This money goes straight into your bank instead of having to be carried out at the end of a mission, so you get to keep it regardless, even if you fail a mission… or at least until your enemies get wise and start setting up syphons of their own, draining your bank account if you don’t act quickly.


Procedural generation allows for a bit of variety between levels and areas, although the themed areas are constructed similarly, with slums offering shorter buildings with basements, while the cities have much taller constructions. Even the names of businesses change between levels, with neon signs appearing in different colors and fonts. However, the procedural generation also occasionally works against the player by populating single tiles with guards that constantly change directions, making it difficult for the player to approach them without being spotted... although they can be overcome if the player has purchased the proper upgrade that temporarily conceals him in a cloud of smoke.


Also, without purchasing all of the agility upgrades, players may find themselves unable to reach certain high ledges, rendering sections of the level inaccessible, and potentially making it impossible for the player to return to his pod. Unfortunately, the only way to resolve this issue is to enter the pause menu and “retire” the selected thief, which is effectively a suicide button that ends the day, fails the mission, and replaces the thief with another.


There are a few control issues that get in the way of a successful run as well. For one, there is a long cooldown period between the thief’s baton strikes, despite the short animation for the attack. As such, players may miss a swing and attempt to perform another strike, only to find that the move is not yet available. With no visual indicator that the thief is unready to attack, the controls can sometimes feel unresponsive. And there are times when the controls are actually unresponsive, such as attempting to perform a jump when transitioning between a flat and angled surface. Given the narrow margin for error and the potential to lose a large amount of progress upon failure, this shortcoming can be the cause of some unfair deaths.


Visually, the game offers an atmospheric steampunk world with lots of intricate details. However, the game also offers limited contrast and a tremendous amount of light bloom, which can make smaller obstacles difficult to discern, leaving the player to inadvertently walk into small robots and be killed because they were indistinguishable against the background.


The 100-day design is in place to prevent players from making the game unenjoyable by grinding through early levels for modest gains and then walking through the rest of the game with every upgrade. That said, the game is tough, and there is a very real possibility that the player will blow through his 100 allotted days without successfully completing his mission, particularly if he gets off to a rough start.

Even accessing the final mission requires a large sum of money, and failing the mission means that the player will need to replay earlier stages in order to accumulate the sum once more (although the player can fudge things a bit by adding more days near the end). As such, players may want to play through the early areas, develop some successful strategies, get a feel for which upgrades are worth buying, and then reset the game and start again from the beginning.



2D CRED
The Swindle was developed by Dan Marshall under his Size Five Games label, with artwork by Michael Firman and music by Tobey Evans. The studio is also responsible for Gun Monkeys, a procedurally generated online deathmatch shooter, and a pair of well-received point-and-click adventure titles in the form of Ben There, Dan That, and its sequel, Time Gentlemen, Please!.


The game was ported to Playstation platforms by Curve Digital, the studio behind the Buzz! series, the Fluidity games, Explodemon, and the Stealth Bastard games. The studio also focuses on working with other independent developers to port and publish their games on Sony’s platforms, including The Swapper and Velocity Ultra.

1 Comment

  1. Unknown Said,

    There are way too many game-breaking bugs in The Swindle for it to be enjoyable (on PS4, at least) but your criticism about guards being on one-tile wide blocks is unfounded.

    You can use an ability which shrouds you in smoke for a few seconds in order to jump over and take them out without being seen.

    Posted on January 18, 2016 at 9:55 AM