This is a difficult review to write. The beauty of the Unfinished Swan is the beauty of the unknown. To write a review for a game which celebrates discovery with minimal instruction, which contains many surprises and clever reveals, without spoiling it is a challenge. This review is not a long one. You should enter this game with no previous knowledge to get the best experience.
The game is presented as a story you might read your child before sending them to bed, with all the charm and warmth a bedtime story brings. The main character is a young boy called Monroe who is pursuing a swan that has been brought to life from one of his mother’s unfinished paintings. The world in which he is chasing the swan is much like the untouched canvas of one of his mother’s projects. He has to throw globs of paint around him to paint the surfaces and discover the world he is walking through. You control Monroe from a first person point of view and movement is essential. The paint reveals the three dimensions around you and using the darkness of the paint to view the shapes, edges and occlusions of the world is both the method of navigation and the mechanic of discovery. Dotted frequently around your environment are the yellow-coloured footsteps of the Swan who guides your way.
Rather than focussing on what happens next, I think it is more important to focus on the feelings evoked by this game. Giant Sparrow, the developers, have done an excellent job on drip-feeding a clever narrative into the game, which draws the player in and tugs at his heartstrings immediately. The first few minutes of gameplay, were initially a panic as I discovered the only exit in the white space I started in was locked. Panic eventually turned to relief as I discovered a way out, and, as expected, this relief turned into wonderment. The dichotomy of the fear of the unknown combined with the thirst for discovery creates a unique approach to a video game. I found myself wondering how a blind person may feel as they walk through everyday life, with the tip of their cane giving brief clues to their environment. It was quite a humbling experience. It is important to note, however, you never feel completely lost. Contextual clues in the world around you and the ever-present yellow swan tracks help you to progress, while at the same time allow you to explore.
Exploration is actively encouraged as there are several collectibles to find which allow you to unlock further treats. The story is cleverly revealed through hidden artifacts in the environment, as are clues to help you achieve your goal in every chapter (there are also a few hidden easter eggs with nods to other video games which make exploration worthwhile). Again it is a challenge to describe the latter parts of the game without giving too much away, but needless to say, painting your environment is not the only method for finding your goal, the Swan. As in every child’s book, there is also danger and conflict, which is satisfying as it does not insult the intelligence. The twist at the end of the game is spot on, and fits the story and material well. Once you have completed the game you unlock all the chapters and are able to jump back in and replay any level at your leisure, which is essential if you are the sort of person who likes to platinum games.
Be warned, as mentioned before, this is a short game. With the price tag of £9.99 in the UK, some people may be wary of purchase, but it is worth taking into account the replay-ability of the levels to find all the collectibles. Some people may also balk at the lack of an in-game tutorial, as is so often the want in many games, however if they think this they have missed the point. I worried initially that you had to play through the game in one sitting as there is no option to save at any point in the game, but was rewarded with an autosave eventually. This is not a game you can drop in and out of and should be played on a chapter-by-chapter basis. I think this decision has been made to allow for coherence of the story. Also as the later levels become more convoluted, the game is more forgiving in it’s autosaves.
I tried playing the game using both the standard controllers and the Move controller and found I preferred the old fashioned way. Newcomers to gaming may prefer the immediacy of the move, but I found it lacked fine control when playing. That’s not to say fine control is required. For the most seasoned gamer, the Unfinished Swan is not a particularly challenging game, but that’s not the point. It’s not really about the graphics, or the controls or length of play. It’s not really about the gameplay, as such (although it is great), it’s about the story, the variety of emotions experienced, the sense of isolation and bewilderment and it is about being surprised consistently and having your breath taken away. At one point in the game I stopped and looked, uttering the word, “Wow.” at exactly same time the little boy in the game said it. Big Sparrow know how to impress.