It is fascinating to think about the numbers that developers choose to work with, and 100 – a plain old century – is the most intriguing number that has come my way in quite a while. The Swindle gives you 100 days to prepare for its final mission, and while that’s enough time to allow you to work around unforeseen accidents, it’s also enough time to ensure that failure will really sting.The Swindle is a Steampunk Cybercrime Caper.
We’re in Alternate Victorian London here, surrounded by clanking robots and rattling blimps. The world is viewed through a thick smudge of dirt and smoke, and technology, by and large, tends to look like it might be an early form of Teasmaid.
Welcome to 1126 Assembly Avenue, where a crime is being committed. Several, in fact, if you consider the lack of elegance in the committing of a crime to be something of a crime in itself. Dewdrop Billy (tentative catchphrase: “I dew drop in, and then I hit you with a billy”) is on the scene. He has broken windows and he has plundered safes. He has clubbed patrolling robot guards into tidy piles of cogs and springs, and he has shattered floating machine-guns with a deft swipe of the truncheon. Sadly, he has also tripped the alarm and the cops are coming. Sadder still, he has just entered a room through a hole in the ceiling only to find himself confronted with a dead end – and, of course, a hole in the ceiling he can no longer reach.
The crucial thing about this story is not that The Swindle will drop you into levels that you can’t easily get out of, although it definitely will. It’s that it gets to the crux of the game, which is all about trying to prepare yourself for something terrifying, while fending off the dark specter of temptation. The Swindle generates unbeatable levels because it gives you the tools to beat any level. The question becomes: in what order do you acquire these tools?
There is a wonderful relationship here between the scaling horrors of the houses you are sent to burgle and the scaling wonder of the gadgets and abilities you can use to do so. Each of your 100 days represents one robbery – you lose any cash you have in hand if killed, but keep the haul in your bank account and any upgrades, which are passed on to your next procedurally generated thief – and you’ll start off in the slums, facing the flimsiest of patrolling robots and other security measures as you get to grips with the weak opening jump, the wall-scramble for climbing, and the wall-slide for descending (careful with this last one, as you never know what’s lurking beneath you).
With the money you earn, you can unlock new areas that see you working your way upwards through the teetering hierarchy of London, from warehouses and semi-fancy townhouses to casinos and massive banks where the louring sky is stained sodium orange or blood red. Top-tier security includes walking gramophones who fire mechanical hornets at you in bronzed swarms, or a rotating cube that chugs across the ground towards you and attacks with surprising bursts of speed. The art style, which is hand-drawn and intricate – and is animated in a manner that puts me in mind of Noggin the Nog, the ancient and terrifying children’s show that utilised cardboard cut-outs manipulated in real-time by magnets – is perfect for lending haphazard, addled character to an endless army of unlikely machines.
Some foes, such as an explosive mini-blimp that will hear your footsteps through walls, can actually be useful, as they can be lured toward spots that you’d quite like to blast to pieces in the first place. Or you could just use a bomb, or the teleport move. As in Spelunky, there is a rich ecology here that clips together in very interesting ways, and at 15 hours in, I’m still being surprised by stuff that happens.
Speaking of those doors: while I’m not sure that the upgrade shop has much scope to offer a range of fundamentally different character builds to work towards, it does offer enough diversity to lure you away from a definitive racing line – at least now, before the Wikis ramp up. Relatively early on in the game, you’ll move from buildings where the front door is pretty much wide open to buildings where it’s locked, and you can pay for a skill that will allow you to hack through the lock. Or you could ignore that, assuming that a little scampering will give you a window to enter through somewhere higher up. But what if there’s no window? You’ve just blown an entire day.
Criminologists amongst you will notice a shift in the very nature of the crime being committed here, from burglary, which is thrilling and risky and takes place at the sharp end, to computer fraud, which is passive and slightly dull and operates at a distance. There is a reason that computer fraudsters tend to be rather overweight and drab: once I discovered bugs, I spent a few fairly boring minutes working a new strategy; I would plant a bug, and then I would simply stand outside the next building I came to and watch the money pour in. (Very sharp criminologists may notice another shift here: to loitering.)
Or maybe it’s something more exotic. Burglars, it seems to me, are the neurosurgeons of the thieving world, calling upon precision and restraint as they venture into intricate and claustrophobic landscapes filled with cartwheeling dangers. Deep within The Swindle, through the windows, past the early patrols and right into the secret chambers of a gaudy mansion, I really feel that: the thrill of being faced with lavish punishments for the slightest transgression. With its toffs in need of fleecing and its bloodied cash blowing on the breeze, this is an ideal game for the age of austerity – but it is also a welcome reminder that nothing good comes without cost.
After four years, one cancellation, and one uncancellation, The Swindle is finally hit the shelves.