Swarm review: Tough crowd

Ludwig Kietzmann
L. Kietzmann|03.25.11

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Ludwig Kietzmann
March 25th, 2011
Swarm review: Tough crowd
I'd like to think of Swarm as a playful, overtly sadistic embodiment of the phrase, "like lambs to the slaughter." That's a confusing message, because the game casts you in the role of both the shepherd, who must guide an oblivious blue flock to the end of the level, and the slaughterer, who extracts a real benefit from every minced-up minion.

The swarmites are clearly designed to be extinguished -- and to extinguish even the smallest blip of sadness or guilt you might feel upon seeing them crushed, burnt, electrocuted or disintegrated in one of the many death traps scattered across the universe's least hospitable planet. Their eyes project no intelligence, their doughy bodies are devoid of gross internal organs and there's not a single personality in a group of 50. They look like stupid, disposable jelly beans.

You'd think that the game would invite you to revel in their torture, what with all the "death medals" you unlock and an ever-increasing online counter that keeps track of all the splattered simpletons. A good score is crucial to advancement in Swarm, and the only way you'll get one is by building up a time-sensitive multiplier that's fueled by point orbs or sacrificed swarmites. If your blue blob is racing across the screen and you don't see any points, you're encouraged to steer a peripheral peon off a cliff or into a fire. It's like swerving your car through a puddle to soak a roadside pedestrian -- it's a dick move, but it's a guilt-tinged delight and on your way.

It turns out that Swarm doesn't always approve of that sort of behavior in its secret anti-cruelty campaign. Half the time it feels like a frantic platformer with forgiveness padding (in the form of 49 extra lives running alongside you), and in the other half it becomes a rote death-dodger with an imprecise avatar. Despite its kill-em-all-haha attitude, what Swarm really wants you to do is conserve swarmites. Sometimes you'll need as many as 30 to activate switches that dole out more points, which are usually vital in amassing a score high enough to unlock the next level. And sometimes you'll need even more survivors, though there's never any sort of warning beforehand.

It turns out that Swarm doesn't always approve of that sort of behavior in its secret anti-cruelty campaign.

Obviously, the solution is to always be careful. You can expand or contract the collective swarmites, or turn them into a wobbly tower that can reach higher terrain, but the levels often resort to cheap and unpredictable hazards, punishing you for controlling a crowd rather than taking advantage of it. You'll lose swarmites to molten rocks falling from the sky, mechanical monsters that give chase and exploding canisters that can cause so much destruction, it can be hard to see what the hell's going on. That's when your 49 friends feel like a liability.

There's also an irksome domino effect induced by the game's strict requirements: you don't have enough swarmites left alive to unlock extra points on a button, so your score won't reach high enough to unlock the next level. The next level doesn't care about your cumulative score, so you then have to play the preceding level multiple times, sequentially, until you're good enough at chasing down the collectables and tip-toeing through a well-memorized path. You're warped to a checkpoint if all your swarmites cease to exist, but since your multiplier reverts to zero it's usually best to restart the whole level.

The levels are short enough to avoid turning the repetition into an offensive timesink, but that also means you'll be very familiar and very sick of them by the third time your swarmites get impaled on difficulty spikes. It's not even that the game is too hard, per se. Controlling a crowd as a single, amorphous unit puts a new wrinkle on an old video game staple -- the inexplicable chicane of death -- but the consequence of losing members haphazardly seems too dire. Since the ugly stars of Swarm guarantee that you'll never lament their loss on an emotional level, its brick-wall scoring steps in to make sure to make you feel punished anyway.

It's hard to comment on a reversed situation -- a more forgiving game that makes a tragedy out of your unintended murder of cutelings -- save for saying one thing: Swarm is a good idea in need of better executions.

This review is based on final PlayStation 3 code provided by Ignition Entertainment. Swarm is available on PSN and XBLA for $15.
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