The Unfinished Swan review: Palette cleanser

Video games are good at a lot of things. Typically, they appeal to our baser instincts – usually the desire for power, in whatever form that may take, be it blasting aliens, slaying dragons or scoring touchdowns. What they do particularly well that isn't explored often enough, is rekindle our childhood capacity for amazement.

I think this is something that most invested players realize, whether they've ever articulated it or not. More than books or movies, games engage us, and the good ones pull us in. They can remind us what it was like to lift a rock in a garden, discovering the creatures that live underneath, or how it felt to dribble paint on a sheet of paper, fold it in half and reveal a butterfly.

The Unfinished Swan is the story of a child, Monroe. Its ability to plant players firmly in his shoes, to help us see the world as he does, is what makes it special.%Gallery-168082%

Following the death of his mother, Monroe awakes in the orphanage one night to find that her favorite unfinished painting – a swan still missing its neck – has leapt from its canvas and wandered through a small door. As they so often are in stories like these, the door is magical, and transports Monroe to a world very unlike our own, a world where paint is more than pigment and can change the very fabric of reality.

The first area Monroe visits, a perfectly white garden, presents players with an environment utterly dominated by white. The world isn't governed by the usual laws of light either, meaning that everything is completely white. There are no shadows to guide you, no shades of gray to give shape to Monroe's surroundings. It is, at first glance, a void.

From a first-person perspective, the player's only form of navigation centers on the ability to splatter the world with black paint. As globs of paint splatter on the surrounding surfaces, their shapes are revealed. The black contrasts directly with the untouched white space, immediately engaging the player's innate sense of distance and perspective. It's a difficult process to describe, essentially like creating a stone rubbing of the entire world.

PlayStation Move is supported, and using it to fling paint around is intuitive and simple, though movement (turning, especially) can be a bit of a chore. Eventually, I wound up preferring a standard controller.

As Monroe journeys through his strange new world, he learns the story of the King who, like Monroe's mother, started many things but never finished them. Monroe's adventures take him through the perfectly white garden, a formidable labyrinth, a kingdom choked in extraordinary vines, a frightening forest and, finally, into the King's very dreams.

Ever-changing mechanics prevent the proceedings from getting stale and force players to think in new ways. In one world, lively vines sprout up instantly at the touch of moisture, chasing the watery path painted by Monroe. In another, his paint brings blueprints to life, as hand-drawn blocks spring up from the page, creating stairs and bridges to previously inaccessible areas.

Like its mechanics, the aesthetic of The Unfinished Swan changes frequently. The stark white of the garden evolves to add shadows. Hints of color begin to appear, emphasized by the vines and the accompanying explosion of green. The dark of the forest brings with it bright bursts of neon, the only light to guide the way.

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Every area may look and play differently, but they all revolve around the same theme: finding a way forward. It's apropos for a story about an orphaned child, though the narrative never dwells on the fact, never gives in to melancholy or depression. Quite the opposite, in fact. Monroe's travels are whimsical, as is the tale of the King, which is revealed through hidden storybook panels and brought to life by a wonderful narrator. The King himself – voiced by Terry Gilliam, in a brilliant bit of casting – proves to be the most interesting character, though Monroe doesn't actually meet him until the final act.

The Unfinished Swan's storybook nature is simultaneously its greatest strength and only real fault. Like a children's story, the fare is mostly light, and none of the puzzles are terribly taxing. The ending, sweet as it is, feels a bit abrupt. But maybe that's appropriate. After all, what bedtime story doesn't leave a child (or child at heart) wanting more?

Those seeking a literal interpretation of Monroe's journey may be left wanting as well, though I would argue such a pursuit misses the point anyway. The power of The Unfinished Swan – not unlike a Terry Gilliam film, coincidentally – lies in its engagement with our imagination, in its ability to remind us of that capacity for whimsy and fantasy. If your life could use a little less logic and a little more fascination, The Unfinished Swan should not be missed.

This review is based on a PSN download of of The Unfinished Swan, provided by Sony. It will be available to PlayStation Plus members on October 16 for $15. It will be available to all PSN members on October 23.

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