The Unfinished Swan is a highly stylized game from new developer Giant Sparrow that tells the imaginary tale of a boy named Monroe and his travels to grasp onto something lost. It’s not a game simply of story, but also one of presentation and gameplay, adding another heavyweight contender to the growing list of must-have PSN exclusives. From the stark black and white beginning to the truly storybook ending, The Unfinished Swan is a masterpiece and a game that falls only fingernails short of perfection. I said it in my preview and my tone hasn’t changed: If you have functioning Internet, eyes, fingers, ears and heart, please go get this game.
Sights, Sounds and Satire
Going into a bit more detail than the obvious “everything,” The Unfinished Swan is most easily appreciated as a visual magnum opus. Though much less impressive in stills and description, you spend the majority of the game simply chucking globs of paint on stuff. Whether they define or create or purify, both the way they satisfactorily splash and the effects they bring are whimsical and perfectly depicted. And the world! Oh man, oh man. There is nothing like it, plain and simple.
Equal parts Mirror’s Edge and Journey (the latter of which is tastefully homaged in a bit of an easter egg), what begins as a ghastly, featureless white chasm gives way to colors and shades and lush overgrowth. Never once was it overdone or out of place. Always tasteful and always shamefully brilliant. On top of this, the audio is top notch. With soothing melodic parts for your naive exploration and horrible, dark, scary ambiance for those horrible, dark and scary parts. Which brings me to part two!
As I said before, the gameplay can be looked upon as simplistic but it is actually a master’s course in pacing. Each new idea is laid out in due time, building and building on your accumulated skills. Nothing ever sticks out of the game’s own ruleset and you’re never thrown a total curveball that upends the immersion. It’s just so well-refined and executed; not too big and not too small.
There are also several goodies to accrue and challenges to conquer. These both take the form of finding balloons. Found hidden balloons can be used to buy in- and out-of-game things, ranging from a paint hose to a balloon radar to concept art. As an additional freebie, you get numerous funny, clever and unobtrusive gaming references. No doubt Giant Sparrow is attempting to furnish the $15 price tag, but honestly, the game doesn’t even need it.
The story in The Unfinished Swan is another core strength. Without giving too much away, it functions as both a journey within Monroe’s imagination (or is it?) and an analogy for a profound loss. The way you are never totally sure of whether it’s a fantasy world or simply a nice daydream is not a work-around but an unanswered question. Parallel to Monroe’s bit is the episodic retelling of The King’s tale (no doubt a Katamari reference in appearance and ambition). In the end, as is expected, both come together in an ultimately satisfying manner. Coupled with masterful gameplay, the story has a real push to it, always giving you a bit of it to tide you over.
Quibbles and Niggles
Look, the game is basically flawless. But there are a few, near-meaningless catches to snag you on the otherwise marble surface. For example, in the compromise between feeling vulnerable and still playing well, The Unfinished Swan errs on the side of playing well. Let me be blunt: Monroe, a scared and lonely child, moves like the Master Chief. Not like the Master Chief, but exactly like him; effortless, floaty jump and all. It’s such a small issue, but noticeable.
The only other thing is even less of a real complaint, again stemming from the desire to make a better game. Early on, you are able to buy that balloon radar I mentioned earlier. Stop. Don’t use it. At least not the first time. On my second playthrough I turned it on and it ruins the game’s superlative feel. A slow, smart, scared crawl is changed into a hunt for balloons, only fixating on the little icon in the corner. I lost interest immediately. You might as well play the game blindfolded.
Obviously, this is entirely optional but I really, really recommend you don’t use it until you’ve beaten the game. You can go back, chapter-by-chapter, and get them all later, I promise. It is the quickest way to change a brilliant, masterful game into something far less.
A masterpiece. The Unfinished Swan is a true must-own, whether you want a powerful story, a totally unique presentation or a perfectly paced adventure. It’s a powerful game, capable of much more than its downloadable size and minimal control scheme belie. It ranks among the best games of the year, a gamer’s must-have, only stumbling for mere breaths before taking off.