Never bring a sword to a gunfight. More specifically in the case of this review, never bring a swordship to a gunship fight. You WILL die.
While that ‘Swordship’ title might make you think that you can defend yourself, you can’t. This is a shoot ’em up where you’ve neglected to bring a weapon. It’s Galaga firing blanks; R-Type with finger-guns. Swordship cannot fire, nor can it retaliate: all it can do is dodge, survive, and draw fire from one enemy to another.
The pitch is that you’re a rebel, a member of The Banished who is looking to smuggle containers away from the suffocating multinationals, and instead bring them to the needy. You’ve taken control of the fastest ship in the fleet for the task, and the containers are hurtling towards you at speed. You’re going to need to swing into their path, before depositing them in the claws of drones that, again, only appear momentarily.
Even without enemies, this would be a challenge. There’s a split-second notification that a container is arriving, denoted by a column of yellow on the screen. Moving into its path is the first half of the challenge, while the second is staying in the small, flashing outline of a drone for long enough that they can retrieve it. More often than not, the yellow column will flash by, and your smuggling trip will turn out to be empty-handed.
Snag a container and send it on its way, and each level-end will give you a choice. Do you open the container and benefit from the energy cells within? Or do you submit the container to The Banished, acting as Robin Hood and receiving an increased score for the sacrifice. In the simplest terms it’s a choice between short-term and long-term gains. Keep a container for yourself and you’ll be gaining lives, power and other benefits for the run. Divert the container to The Banished, and you’ll be gaining score that might make the difference when leveling your swordship at the end of a run.
Ah yes, we should have mentioned that Swordship is a roguelike. Your death is pre-determined: all that matters is how far through the levels you get before you die. The further you get, the higher the score. The higher the score, the more progress you make on a kind of XP bar. Should you get partway through a level, all of your XP drains away. You’re going to need to blast through an XP bar in its entirety if you want to keep your progress. Now, that container sounds more tempting, right?
You will die because Swordfish is about how you handle the enemies you face, and they are utter buggers. Enemies are preceded by a signature splash that gives you an indication of the enemy that’s about to surface. When they arrive, they do what they can to kill you, and that can mean anything from lasers to mortars to mines.
The swordship, thankfully, is a nippy little scamp, and you can mostly outrun the enemies, if not their projectiles. Every single bullet is carefully telegraphed, giving you all the information you need to get out of their way before they hit. Your counter-measures might be a swift veer out of the way, or a dive underwater that has a cooldown to stop it from being overused. There are also ship-specific abilities, like EMPs, that can give you momentary reprieves.
Combat, if you can call it that, becomes a dance. All sorts of attacks are aimed at you, but you’ve got plenty of options when avoiding them. But the next-level play is whether you can pull an Uno reverse, and turn their attacks against them. Can you pull the attention of a laser so it fires at an enemy? Can you loiter around enemies when mortars fall, catching them in the cross-fire? Can you trigger mines so they blow up everything around them?
It’s a hell of an idea. It’s a risky one too, as the best parts of a shoot ’em up are the power ramps, and obliterating enemies with overpowered ordnance. Taking all that away and leaving you with the least exciting part of a shooter – the dodging – is bold and perhaps foolhardy.
Swordfish does everything in its power to make it work. This is one of the slickest, best-presented games we’ve played this year. Dodge attacks, and you glide away in slow motion to highlight the hair’s breadth that separated you from death. You’re always on the move, hurtling forward, and that gives the game momentum. And everything explodes and crumples in a way that is satisfying.
The structure’s created with precision, too. The choice between long-term and short-term benefits is a cunning one, and never fails to be a difficult choice. The deluge of ships to unlock, too, makes you eager to both access them and then try them out. Each ship makes a run feel fundamentally different.
Which makes us all the more confused about why we feel so empty playing Swordship. While it treats our eyeballs and feels nimble as a cat to play, it doesn’t deliver any substance. We felt very little joy in playing Swordship, and even less incentive to keep doing run after run.
Roguelike-itis is one reason for this emptiness. There is a common ailment in roguelikes where replaying from the start, wading through older levels, takes up too much time and offers too little in the way of reward. Swordfish is definitely in this category. It doesn’t do enough to make these opening moments different or worthwhile; instead, we resented having to redo them.
Swordship is also curiously singular in its vision. It has the campaign and nothing else. There’s no multiplayer to spice up gameplay. There’s no narrative, time trials, endurance modes or anything of that kind. The single roguelike mode is all that’s here, and if you’re finding that it’s not working for you, then there’s no alternative. We couldn’t help imagining what Swordship might have been like with these bolt-ons, and how much they would have helped to connect us with the game.
But the fatal problem with Swordship is that, for all the glitzy presentation and innovations, it doesn’t feel particularly empowering or satisfying to play. Running away doesn’t create a singular, brilliant moment. There’s slivers of excitement that come from narrowly avoiding something, but otherwise you will need to get your kicks from staying safe, and that’s a slow-burning tension rather than anything that might be considered payoff or climax.
Sure, there’s a cleverness in how you can get enemies to kill each other, but there’s a fiddliness in achieving those moments. Getting laser-sights to line up with each other is a matter of delicately nudging the ship, but so much is happening and the controls are so acutely sensitive that this is much, much harder than it looks. We found that pulling off these stunts was often more trouble than it was worth, and instead found ourselves concentrating on the location of the containers instead. It probably wasn’t what Swordship wanted us to do.
There’s a killer idea at the core of Swordship, and so much presentational care has been put into supporting it. What would happen if you ‘pulled a Mirror’s Edge’ and made a shooter completely pacifist? The result would be Swordship, a dodge ’em up that’s overloaded with potential.
In execution, though, it slowly capsizes. Running away just isn’t as cool as mowing down whole fleets with lasers, and the surrounding roguelike systems are all too flimsy. We’d love to play a successful attempt at the premise, but Swordship ain’t it.
You can buy Swordship from the Xbox Store
- Stellar presentation
- Plenty of new ships to unlock
- Basic idea had us hooked
- Running away never feels good
- Controls are slippery
- Roguelike structure never became more-ish
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - Thunderful
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS4, PS5, Switch, PC
- Version reviewed - Xbox Series X
- Release date - 6 December 2022
- Launch price from - £16.99