Blueberries with Limbs
I knew I would like Swarm the moment I saw its title screen, which prominently features a large blue swarmite and a warning not to press the triangle button. Like any reasonable person I immediately pressed it, and was greeted by a large saw blade that rose through the ground and slowly divided the swarmite in two. The swarmite quickly dissolved and was replaced with several successors, which I gleefully dispatched with arrows, poison gas, flames and meteors, all with the press of one button. It’s an appropriate main menu, as it reveals one of the game’s core ideas – death isn’t always such a bad thing in Swarm.
One for All, not All for One
You control your swarm as a group, rather than as the individual swarmites. This is a good thing, as you can have up to 50 swarmites at once and controlling them all at once is a challenge I would rather not experience. The AI takes care of individual swarmite actions, keeping them moving together and acting appropriately in context-sensitive situations.
Control over the swarm is fairly limited. You can bunch the swarmites together, spread them apart, stack them up, and have them jump, pick up, throw and bash into things. This simplifies the control scheme, but also simplifies the gameplay. As you make your way left to right through the levels, collecting pieces of DNA and shiny orbs for points, the challenge comes from maintaining your multiplier and keeping enough swarmites alive, rather than using the swarmites in especially ingenious ways. Though gameplay videos suggest otherwise, this challenge reveals Swarm to be a puzzle game, rather than the platformer it claims to be.
Sacrifices Must Be Made
Specific point totals must be reached in each level to unlock the next, and as they can run into the millions, a high score-multiplier is a must. This is where Swarm’s unique death mechanic comes into play. While you need to keep your swarmites alive to collect point orbs, defeat enemies, and activate special ‘this many swarmites required’ switches, simply collecting orbs will only raise your multiplier so much. A much faster way is to kill some swarmites. When your swarmites die by one of the various methods present in the game, your multiplier rises. This leads to tense scenarios where you’re trying to keep your swarm alive (as losing all swarmites and restarting at a checkpoint kills your multiplier), while still killing enough to keep your multiplier going. It’s an ingenious balancing mechanic (helped by pods scattered throughout the levels that replenish your swarm), one that rewards careful playing, but stops short of making players obsess over keeping each and every swarmite alive.
Stuck on Replay
Swarm doesn’t have a terribly large number of levels, so multiple level replays are encouraged. The game keeps track of the numerous ways swarmites have died with Death Medals, and it can be fun to run through levels and destroy your swarm in creative ways. However, while replays are fun when initiated by the player, they are decidedly less so when forced by the game. Many of the score requirements needed to unlock levels are difficult to get. The fact that your multiplier dies with you when you reload at a checkpoint makes the checkpoints useless, so no-restart run-throughs with one constant multiplier are the only way to achieve a high enough score. This necessitates several plays of the same level to familiarize yourself with the layout and map out strategies to squeeze out all the points you can. By the law of diminished returns, though, the levels become less novel and less fun the more you have to play them. More levels, with a lesser emphasis on replay, would have served Swarm well.
Snap(ping), Crackl(ing), and Pop(ping) your Swarmites
Swarm goes for a cartoony look and succeeds. Swarmites burst in a satisfying pop of blue goo when killed, and the swarm contrasts well with the varied colored environments. There’s no dialogue, but the background music sets a nice enough tone, enhanced by the various clicks and dings as your swarmites collect orbs and get blown up.
Swarm’s greatest strength is its tongue-in-cheek approach to death. It can be very satisfying to kill off a chunk of the swarm at once, and the death medals are a great way to encourage replays. The score requirements, however, are not, and may turn off some players looking for a more laid back experience where they can kill swarmites and progress through the levels no matter how poorly they do. Unfortunately, there’s only one difficulty level in Swarm. If you were misled by the trailers and want a more traditional platforming experience, then give the swarmites a pass. If you’re okay with sinking time into replaying levels of a puzzle game, then Swarm is for you. Players with a sense of humor and some patience will find much to love in Swarm.
Controlling the swarm is a novel experience, playing through the levels and maintaining swarmite deaths to keep your multiplier is fun.
Forced replays lessen the experience, more levels with lower score requirements would have been welcomed.