The main character of Swapshot has an ability that might seem like it’s something you’d want in real life. With a single bullet-like shot, you can swap places with whatever you’re firing at. It sounds powerful, but the more we think about it – and the more we play Swapshot – we realise that it would be a confusing mess.
It’d be disorienting as hell, as suddenly our surroundings are completely different. It might just trap us somewhere we don’t want to be. And we’re left wondering what chaos we’ve caused by sending the object the other way. As an idea, it’s great, but the reality has problems. Which is a decent summary of Swapshot, as it happens.
Swapshot starts like any other indie platformer. For the first seven or eight levels, it’s a character trying to reach a goal. In Swapshot’s case, that goal is a stone door, and the character is a permed little adventurer who looks like she’s strayed from a 90’s Amiga game. The retro aesthetic is strong with this one. All she has to do is hop, skip and jump across platforms to reach the exit.
We’d love to say that the platforming controls in Swapshot feel good, but there’s something off about them. There’s a slight delay to the jump that meant that precise jumps – and there are a fair few in Swapshot – led to us falling to the bottom of the screen more than we’d like. There’s a lingering float to the jumping arc that we didn’t like either. Perhaps we’d just been treated to Amabilly, another indie platformer that came out recently, as these simple elements felt better executed in that other game.
It takes a little while, but eventually the Swapshot gun ends up in your hands. With a single bullet, you can swap places with – very specifically – the crates and boxes in the levels. Line up with that crate, fire your bullet and then wait. Soon, you will be where the crate once was, and the crate is where you started. We gave a little nod of appreciation – this is what puzzle platformers are made of. We could imagine what Swapshot was going to do with this gimmick.
Swapshot has fun with both sides of the equation. Sometimes, the puzzle is about getting you places. You want to be higher, or you want to be on the other side of the screen. But other times, it’s about getting the crate somewhere important. You need it for a switch, or to be a leg-up to an otherwise impossible platform. The Swapshot mechanic is wonderfully nuanced, as it’s a puzzle to work out which of the gun’s two uses you will need.
It took us an age to work it out, but there’s even more to the mechanic than these two approaches. The bullet takes a while to reach the block. In that space of time, you can move to another location. What this means is that, where you fire from and where you swap from are two very different things. This was a concept that wasn’t tutorialised in any way, and it took us plenty of angry replays before we finally figured it out. There you go: it’s our gift to you.
The game we’re describing sounds wonderful, and there is most definitely a version of Swapshot that would get the makers of It Takes Two paying attention. We could absolutely imagine it being a gun for use in a sequel. But there are so many issues in the execution that we ended up feeling a little deflated. The gap between what it is, and what it could have been, is too large.
Frustration #1 comes from the limited bullets. We completely understand why, since Swapshot wants you to carefully and precisely work out its puzzles. But more often than not, it means that one single mistake – a wayward bullet, most likely – is enough to force a restart. The lack of leeway becomes an annoyance, simply because there were already plenty of other ways to fail. Getting trapped, or locking a crate in an unworkable position, were already failure states.
Then there’s the precision. Swapshot can’t really decide if it’s a puzzle-platformer or an action-platformer. Some levels require you to swap at speed, or – the absolute worst – leap and fire at precisely the correct latitude to hit the crate, and then move to a new position for the swap. The problem is that Swapshot is not built for this kind of precision or fast-paced gameplay. The platforming controls are not exact enough. The shooting is definitely not exact enough.
The combination of limited bullets and very precise windows for shooting crates is not a good one. Sometimes you can feel like Luke Skywalker, making an impossible shot to take down the Death Star. It’s too hit and hope, and the succession of restarts makes Swapshot less than thrilling. Often, working out what you need to do is simple, easy even. But pulling it off is a clumsy cacophony of mistakes.
These levels are not impossible, we should make clear. It might take five or six goes, but you’ll get there, so the frustrations are momentary. There are enough clear skies to appreciate when things click together. Unsurprisingly, those are in the puzzle levels, where you shout ‘Eureka!’ and work out the correct order of shooting crates.
Ultimately, though, Swapshot doesn’t last long. It is merely thirty-five levels, and the first seven or eight of those are teaching the controls. If you remove the more action-platform-flavoured levels, you’ve got no more than a dozen that play to Swapshot’s strength: the puzzles.
For £4.19, a dozen enjoyable levels is certainly inexpensive, but it’s more about the opportunity that has been missed. In the swapping gun, there is a fantastic idea that begs for a game to be built around it. But Swapshot isn’t slick enough, nor clever enough, to truly get the most out of it.