Sunday, April 03, 2011

Swarm Review

If there’s one game I’ve wanted to see in this current generation of consoles it’s a follow-up to Nintendo’s Pikmin. I got a brief taste with Overlord, but it was more focused on your hero rather than capturing the style of having a disposable set of workers at your side. Enter Swarm, which plays like a darker more sadistic cousin of the cute Nintendo classic. More death, more explosions and bigger enemies, are just some of the features on offer.

The basic premise of Swarm is quite different to Pikmin, and sees you trying to get fifty little creatures – called Swarmites – from one end of the level to the other. It’s a classic platform game setup, only with fifty characters to watch rather than one. The Swarmites, form a circle and you control them all at once as you pass various obstacles.

There’s no central character - like with Pikmin and Overlord , so it can be tricky to tell exactly which point of the group you are controlling, but as the entire troupe obeys the same instructions this isn’t much of a problem. There’s a lot of jumping to be done in the game, so the best way to look at it is as if you are controlling the creature closet to the right of the pack. That way you won’t run any off the edge for a jump, and you won’t jump too early by trying to pre-empt the arrival of the pack.

Once you’ve mastered those basics your group can also be expanded, or shrunk to keep everyone close for navigating small platforms. You can also stack them on top of each other, or charge them forward in to obstacles. At various points you'll be able to interact with objects like bombs and lights to work your way across the environments.

The game plays out in a 2.5D style so although it’s on a flat plane, you can move the Swarmites closer and further away from the front of the screen. This gives the game designers a lot of free reign to kill your creatures in interesting ways. So you can be set on fire, spiked, exploded, cut on half, lasered or fall down chasms. There's so many possible deaths that every Swarmite killed is recorded, and you gain extra achievements for each of the deaths on offer, or for hitting certain quotas.

You’ll battle through these challenges across 10 levels and two truly epic boss battles, but although the nature of the game seems to be to keep your creatures alive, you progress in an entirely different way. It’s not enough to get to the end, or to even do so with everyone alive. Instead the game will only let you progress by beating a pre-set score, and collecting DNA that unlocks the boss battles. This is frustrating as the game can be quite punishing, and sometimes just surviving to the end of a level can feel like an achievement.

Gathering scores is done through a multiplier that counts down every time you collect an orb. The more of these you collect the higher the multiplier rises, until eventually you earn giant scores that allow you to progress. This forces you to constantly charge in to battle, and to smash everything you can to get orbs. Orbs can be gained by destroying TNT barrels and dashing across panels before they expire. You’ll also get orbs by reaching giant platforms, with a pre set number of Swarmites. To make things even more difficult smashing the TNT barrels will kill off some of your crew and as there’s a lot going on screen at once you’ll often be trying to keep a combo going only to be killed by hidden spikes that cannot be seen.

Checkpoints and stations that refuel your Swarmites are littered across the levels, but if you die you’ll lose any combo that you were running as you got to them. Unless you can keep a combo running across multiple checkpoints it’s pointless to carry on. If you can’t keep a combo at all, then you won’t get past the second level, as the game throws you in at the deep end pretty much straight away. The score attack becomes less of an issue on a couple of occasions to make way for a harder platforming challenge – a night time level proving particularly difficult – but ultimately it’s the key focus for the majority of the run time.

Although Swarm brings back memories of everything from Pikmin to Lemmings, it actually has much more in common with punishing early 90’s action games. In terms of a modern comparison the difficult jumps, unseen deaths and a focus on score attacks, make this much more in line with Trials HD, than Overlord. In fact it’s pretty much the platforming equivalent in every way. Don’t be fooled by the Swarmite’s cute exteriors, Swarm is equal parts challenging and frustrating and it fits nicely against Super Meat Boy and Splosion Man, with a very tough core at its heart.

Swarm is available now on XBLA and PSN.

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Every product on this site has been received for free, and given to me by the product manufacturer or their associated PR organisation in return for a review.

I have no other personal or business association with these companies, and all reviews are written truthfully and based on my own experience. If I hate a product I will say so (and have done on many occasions!).