Swarm – Review and Interview
Some gamers tend to err on the side of sadistic. You know who you are. Those gamers take great pleasure in throwing their characters off cliffs, out of choppers, and in front of cars to see what will happen. They provoke the local wildlife (be it human or animal) and then run away laughing… but just slowly enough to ensure that they will get caught/eaten/shot. The set themselves on fire, eat poison, and jump into gleaming saw blades, just so they can laugh at the blood, savour the carnage, and enjoy death’s embrace. If you’re one of those people, then take a seat because you’ll enjoy Swarm and, best of all, the developers have done all the nasty work for you, so you can continue on your merry way without a stain on your grubby little soul.
Swarm is an action arcade game of the side scrolling, platform/score attack variety. Your simple aim to grow ‘Momma’ by collecting DNA strands and clusters, and gathering as many points as possible. In order to do this, you take control of a Swarm of… Swarmites. These podgy blue blobs resemble fast moving alien lemmings, with elements that brought to mind the ever-awed, bug-eyed Aliens from the Toy Story vending machine. They are the perfect fodder for the sadistic arse kicking that the game is about to hand you, and as sweet and hopeless as they look, don’t get too attached. The Swarmites move around en masse, and will go wherever you guide them, sweeping through the levels in a tight pack, or fanning out to cover more ground and the controls are smooth and responsive – just as you’d expect them to be in a game that punishes error with squishy blue death.
The gameplay is frenetic and absolutely chaotic at times, since the last thing anyone wants to do is make life easy for your hapless swarm. Every level is tooled up with the latest death dealing traps, pits, explosions, and obstacles and the opportunities to die are many fold. Almost as soon as your Swarm is deposited onto the level from a slimy tube, chaos ensues. Platforms, bridges, drops, fan-lifts and more await, with exploding crates, fire-bugs, and spike traps standing between you and the welcoming, if slimy, ‘Cord’ waiting at the level’s end. On the way you’ll need to pick up everything that you can, trigger special pick-ups, and seek out ways to reach those elusive DNA strands to rack up the points. All the while, your Swarm will be decimated by explosions, saw blades, noxious gas, and spikes, unless you guide them with care.
Just surviving with one Swarmite until the end, however, won’t get you anywhere; each level has a set number of points that must be obtained in order to progress. This is where that time honoured multiplier element comes in. Grabbing pick-ups fills your multiplier meter, as does smashing crates, snagging DNA and even killing some of your Swarm. Indeed, with a plummeting multiplier timer (and it does reduce with alarming speed), you are often left with little choice but to sweep some of your Swarm into the abyss or a flaming barrier to keep it alive. This can be a great tactical move when you are familiar with the levels, since there are a number of helpful re-spawn flowers scattered throughout, which serve to buoy up your numbers. Additional points in the form of a time bonus can be gained from swift level completion, but the faster you rush things, the more likely you are to screw up jumps, or run into any number of fire barriers or grisly drops.
Aside from dabbing at the corner of your eye with a lacy hankie when the last of your Swarmites perish, what will you do when they’ve all gone to that big blue tube in the sky? Helpfully, there are a number of checkpoints, which will re-spawn your Swarm at full capacity in order for you to continue, so all is not lost. The levels are well designed, with rarely a dull moment and the game doesn’t take long to plunge you into the thick of the action. The surprisingly big move set is key in traversing some of the trickier portions of the levels, for example clustering your Swarmites into a tight pack and then boosting them before a jump is the only way to cross the abyss in many places, while other sections involve stacking up your boys in blue to jump to higher locations. While the list of moves in the tutorial pages can seem daunting, you soon pick them up… executing them with any skill however, is another matter!
One of the most noticeable things about Swarm, if you haven’t watched one of the many trailers, is the humour. One of the game’s more humorous touches is the inclusion of Death Medals that are earned by appropriate numbers of your Swarm meeting their demise in a variety of ways. Some medals are awarded for mass deaths, while others – bronze, silver, and gold in all categories – are progressive, needing thousands of accumulated Swarmite corpses to attain the upper echelons of shiny greatness. This little extra was a great addition and at least gives the player some reward for repeating the levels over and failing to progress and, to be honest, it is needed.
Swarm’s difficulty takes a nasty twist around level five and I don’t know how long I tried in vain before switching off. As with other games of this type, perseverance is key, as are learning the levels, location of spawn flowers, and checkpoints. Points gained on previous attempts aren’t cumulative, so in order to progress, you’ll have to tackle some of the nastier levels many times in order to break through, all while trying desperately to hang onto both your plummeting multiplier and the lives of your Swarm.
The game’s visual style is crisp and well presented, with rich, vivid colours, and an excellent broken down landscape, with moody backdrops and a fiery abyss below. The Swarmites themselves are a delight: vibrant, energetic blobs of pattering innocence, completely trusting in the player to guide them, and a welcome distraction for the eye against the grim industrial/mechanical touches of the landscape. The deaths are humorous and swift, with no grim delight held back from the player. Swarmites are slammed into fire traps, choked to death on gas, and caught on spikes rearing from the abyss in a way that would make Vlad the Impaler jealous. Whether you get to savour these great touches or not depends on the speed with which you are plunging through the level, but finding a new way for your Swarm to die is always worth stopping a front row seat. The audio goes hand in hand with the carnage and is what you would expect, offering squishy sounds of death appropriate to the action, all adding to the atmosphere of chaos.
Swarm is undeniably a simple concept, boasting one of the oldest gameplay modes around, but given an amusing twist, with a streak of sadism and casual disregard for life that could be inspired by Trials HD. Indeed, it was this game’s addictive leader-board jockeying which prodded the developers to include such a feature themselves, though whether we can eventually expect a level editor to plot our own buffet of death, remains to be seen.
It is hard to put into words just how frenetic Swarm’s action can be at times, with some areas offering a cluster-fuck of explosions, deaths, and bold leaps jammed among hidden traps and tantalising collectibles, making the screen a vision of carnage. Through it all though, despite the frustration of repeated attempts at some of the nastier levels – including one which is almost shrouded in darkness – Swarm is undeniably entertaining, offering addictive ‘just one more go’ gameplay and a sense of humour that would make it a worthy addition to any arcade library, even with its 1200 MSP price tag.
Check out the video below to see Lorna’s interview with Hothead Games’ Director of Game Technology, Joel DeYoung recorded recently at PAX East 2011
- Great sense of sadistic humour
- Frantic, well paced action
- Rich visuals and vibrant colours make the onscreen carnage pop
- Inclusion of Death Medals were a great touch
- 'Just one more go' gameplay ensures that Swarm will be utterly addictive
- Leaderboard jockeys will love it
- Endless repetition of certain levels in order to meet the score needed to progress will, undoubtedly, frustrate some players
- More death medals please!
- Some on a budget may find it a touch pricey at 1200MSP
Guiding a Swarm of blue creatures through chaotic levels packed with entertaining ways to die puts Swarm in the running for most sadistic arcade game of the year. While some will find the repeated playthroughs in this score-attack arcade platformer frustrating, others will revel in the vibrant graphics, kooky, oblivious Swarmites, and the frantic maelstrom of action on offer. Swarm is the sort of game that, whether you are a leaderboard whore or not, will have you slipping back for just one more level of punishment. After all, who else will happily send fifty blue innocents to a fiery doom? Oh, if you insist.
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