Joining the growing numbers of digitally distributed titles looking to blur the lines between established genres, and do so with no small amount of artistic merit, The Unfinished Swan sits comfortably alongside the likes of Limbo, Braid, Flower and Journey.
Cast as the recently orphaned Monroe, a young boy who now finds himself living in an orphanage, the game explores the child’s make believe world (or is it?) as he falls down his own version of Alice’s rabbit hole in pursuit of the titular swan, which has magically pulled itself out of his mother’s favourite canvas.
Finding himself in an entirely white kingdom and armed only with his mother’s paintbrush, Monroe starts liberally applying black paint to his white surroundings, and in doing so reveals an extensive land which stretches way beyond the initial kingdom, and overseas, through forests and more.
Initially acquainting yourself with the best method for exploring this blank canvas is an odd process – especially when you find yourself in square rooms sporting only one exit, or half-way up grand staircases which abruptly stop. The trick is to throw just enough paint that some white is still visible, thereby adding some much needed perspective; after all, an all-black world is about as navigable as an all-white one.
Once you’ve got the knack you’ll find yourself moving into much more interesting environments in no time, the King – who you’ll discover much more about via collected storybook pages – having created an extensive castle, grounds (complete with various animal statues) and town for his own rather narcissistic purposes.
Through this Monroe’s own story, his processing of his mother’s death and the inherent loneliness of finding himself alone is played out, as the King’s tale – a reflection of Monroe’s plight – is unwoven as the boy looks to come to terms with his situation.
A whole game of throwing black ink blots at white surroundings might prove a little tiresome for even the most dedicated black and white enthusiast and thankfully the world continuously evolves as Monroe chases the swan across the King’s realm.
Take the change in his brush when he accidentally plunges into the sea for example: the water diluting the ink and colouring it blue. Monroe’s blue paint covers the white walls only temporarily, but allows him to direct the local plant life, as vines follow the blue ink like water to enable him to create beanstalk-style ladders from the indigenous vegetation.
The areas he explores change too, some remaining all white but sporting shadows – the King’s subjects having apparently complained that none of them could ever find their way home in a completely colourless world – and other areas fully coloured in and home to a range of nightmarish insects looking to sink their teeth into our intrepid explorer.
Not to say that Monroe is ever really in any implicit danger – this isn’t a game about death and combat after all, but rather more benign themes of exploration and discovery. Threats are easily escaped and even if you do die, by failing to make a jump say, the game returns you to the exact point from which you leapt.
Much like Thatgamecompany’s Journey the game is designed to be played in one sitting. Without too much effort I was able to get through it in just about two hours, so for £9.99 you’re looking at an experience the length of an average film. Not terrible value by any means, but I’m not convinced there’s too much replay value beyond collecting the hidden balloons scattered around its environments (though the reward for doing so does make the endeavour worthwhile).
Journey got away with its relative brevity by being a uniquely emotional experience, and while The Unfinished Swan isn’t too far away from such heights, its story never quite gripped me in the same way. Despite such shortcomings however there’s still a lot to like here, and a surprising amount of variety in its gamplay mechanics towards the game’s latter stages.
Call of Duty addicts might not find much here to interest them, for those looking for a more cerebral experience the ticket price will be money well spent.
Developer: Giant Sparrow