The PlayStation Store continues to deliver. Offering exclusive downloadable titles that appear to fly in the face of mass appeal, opting instead for a more art-house approach, it is possibly my favourite aspect of the entirety of Sony’s platform. From the early days of PSN and fl0w right up to the recent Journey, at first glance style lauds it over substance. Take a step into each however and you’ll find that’s nowhere near the case, as each one hides a very different but equally compelling offering going beyond mere visuals.
Latest in this unique series is Unfinished Swan, a collaboration between Giant Sparrow and Sony’s prominent Santa Monica studio. And what is most telling about Unfinished Swan is the option on its title screen marked “Toys”. It sums up a lot about this quirky, first-person adventure.
A lot of the early coverage on this very striking game has focused on the initial steps of your journey. You take the role of Monroe, a young boy who has grown up in an Orphanage. The only reminder of his parents is his mother’s silver paintbrush and a solitary, incomplete painting of a swan. One night he wakes up to find not only that the swan has gone but a mysterious door has appeared in his room. Not one for letting avian abductions go uninvestigated, he picks up his brush and heads through the door.
On the other side, it’s white. Not the white of a bright day or of a polar bear convention, but the kind of white where there are no shadow or edges. He is as lost as if he were blind. Or at least he would be if it weren’t for his brush. A flick of its bristles and you throw a black ball of paint that splatters on the background, breaking the sterility of the environment. A few more flicks and you find that you’re not on an endlessly blank plane but there are walls about you. Following the now evident corridor you discover bannisters, carts and trees. There is a whole world to explore and the only way you will do so is through you paintbrush.
It’s an amazing sense of exploration, one I’ve not encountered in any other game. You don’t as much roam about, seeking the next door, but probe gently and tentatively. Features burst out of thin air as the contents of the world make themselves known to you, and even objects that would be almost inconsequential in more traditionally visual games become somehow wonderful. Stairwells with gaps between the railings, crates with slightly raised planking, and other simple objects take on great depth when splattered from the right angle.
Amusingly enough it’s worth considering where you throw you paint. It’s funny that, unaware that you’ve been walking into a white wall for several seconds, you lob a paintball only for it to explode at point blank range and turn your whole vision black. It’s made me jump a few times, too.
The Unfinished Swan is a modern maze game; but before it gets too settled things begin to be shaken up. The story unfolds a little and shadows appear in the world. By contrast the world it still very minimal but their entry has a large impact on proceedings. For one there’s less need to liberally lob paint around as you can see corners, but for another there’s a sense of loss. Now the world and its edges can be discerned, what are you pressing on for? Where has the neat little mechanic that wowed me at Gamescom gone?
It seems the monochromatic world is merely the first of several that you and Monroe make your way through. In each the paint brush takes on different qualities, every one enabling you to tackle that particular passage’s troubles. Sadly, however, none prove as edifying as its first.
I’ll refrain from spoiling just what is in store for this modern day Penny Crayon, but it’s fair to say that you should never become attached to any single theme. None are left to sit for so long that they become stale; instead the designers prefer to whip them away just as you warm to them. Though this may keep proceedings moving, again there are times when you are left feeling a little empty, knowing that you could have quite happily played with that previous concept for a good few minutes longer. Some fill gaps, but others seem to have the potential to be the focus of full games themselves.
The tale that strings each chapter together is equally erratic, failing to add any meaningful coherency to proceedings. That said, the tale of Monroe is a light-hearted and sentimental one that is hard to scorn. The characters it introduces could all find a home in a modern day fairy tale and help set the playful tone and aesthetic to the world.
Despite my misgivings over how the gameplay evolves, the game as a whole can be described as nothing but delightful. Three hours with Unfinished Swan will not be regretted, as throughout it offers a mix of visual styles and concepts to keep you entertained. The structure is, in some respects, almost comparable to Portal, where different chambers (or in this case, chapters) allow you to explore each toy before moving onto the next.
Unlike Portal, however, you feel that much of what is on offer is only partially explored. It’s not about budgets or production values, what you’re asked to do is novel, engaging and at times unique, but also it has the sense that it’s never pushed beyond the obvious.
Long into the game, I was still entertained with all the toys but I always yearned for was more time in that white room.