When it comes to innovative and enchanting gaming experiences on the Playstation 3 you’d be hard pushed to find a studio with more critical acclaim than Sony Santa Monica. Even after this year’s triumph Journey (which I awarded 9.5) expectations are higher than ever and under the guidance of Giant Sparrow can they really do it again, or will The Unfinished Swan end up lost in the shadow of the mountain?
Everyone I’m sure has vivid memories of nursery rhymes or fairy tales that they read growing up and whether it was dragons and castles or giants and beanstalks nothing quite gets close to matching the magical nostalgia these stories invoke, even now. It’s a heart string that The Unfinished Swan plays on relentlessly to such great effect and despite its technical excellence; at its core this game is a classic fairy tale on the grandest of scales.
You play a small child named Monroe, who after the loss of his mother never truly feels ‘complete’ much like her paintings that always remained unfinished even though she moved tirelessly on to the next canvas. One painting is Monroe’s favourite though and as the orphanage will only allow him to keep one he chooses of course, The Unfinished Swan.
The game starts just like the introduction, a blank canvas with nothing but bright white filling the screen. It’s here that after some button testing you’ll fire an orb of black paint which permanently splatters on any surface it hits. At first you use the paint solely for navigation as you try to guide your way through a maze of corridors with nothing but black splatters to light the way. From this point onward, The Unfinished Swan has you firmly in its grip.
Soon the environments expand and plain walls soon get replaced with a rural setting of rocks, benches, grass and even ponds, all of which you hand paint yourself by firing off your endless supply of paint balls, meticulously sketching out the landscape. You feel like you’re hand crafting the game yourself, even though the detail is simply hidden among the endless white. It’s an incredibly powerful way to experience a game but most importantly it means everyone’s vision of The Unfinished Swan will be entirely unique.
The game continues to add layers as you move through the first chapter and with a startling surprise out of the way the games puzzles and collectibles start to come to for fore. There’s nothing likely to leave you stumped for too long on the puzzle front but there’s just enough challenge in each to keep the pace of the game steadily ticking without it spiraling in to haste or frustration. Just like most things in The Unfinished Swan, they’re perfectly pitched.
There’s plenty of reason to explore though as Story Pages can be revealed adding further depth to the games narrative and there are balloons to find which allow you to unlock items from the ‘Toys’ menu. Some are practical, like the balloon radar which will let you know when you’re getting close (some are very tough to find) or the more humorous paint Sniper Rifle which is your prize for unleashing all balloons in the game.
Eventually the story twists and the games artistic styling effortlessly goes with it and the swan you at first thought you were chasing actually appears to be leading you somewhere. The first change is that shadows get added to the games colour palette. This removes the reliance on using paint for navigation as the corners of walls and stairs are now hand painted with grey. It’s a subtle change but it’s incredibly jarring after the high contrast you’ve experienced so far.
Things only gets more beautiful too and soon blues, greens, gold’s all enter the fray and eventually vast city’s are laid out in front of you. To call The Unfinished Swan a pretty game would be a gross understatement. It’s one of the most stunning and moving visual experiences I’ve ever had pleasure of laying eyes on.
You’ll have to harness nature as well to help you cross the by now crumbling city, as your garish black paint swaps for a calm pale blue. The difference here is that the splashes of colour now fade slowly meaning you’ll need to maintain the stream of orbs to keep targets covered in washes of blue. It changes the strategy as well and when you do enter areas of the city which are still lost in white, the reliance you had previously on permanent markings fast becomes clear.
But every fairy tale has a sinister element, a nightmare that its characters are asked to endure before the inevitable ‘happy ever after’ and The Unfinished Swan brings the terrors of the night in one of its most powerful chapters. After joyfully painting the magical, airy environments of the city, being plunged in to total darkness is a real shock to the senses. Your old friend paint won’t help you either as you’ll instead need to use strategically positioned orbs of light to meander through the twisted forest and to protect yourself from the creatures that lurk in the darkness. It’s a really intelligent shift in design at this juncture of the games plot and the puzzles in particular step up a notch to meet the darker side of The Unfinished Swan.
There’s also some incredible shifts to alternate reality’s as you move from swiftly from to story, to dream and everywhere else in between in just a few short sequences. There’s one pleasing nod to Journey as well which will leave any fan of the mysterious, cloaked figures with a beaming smile, I assure you.
The final chapter is something I won’t be discussing in this review as the twist and the way the game ends is an experience I wouldn’t dream of spoiling for anyone. But rest assured it’s a fitting and magical end to what is one of the most incredible re-incarnations of a fairy tale that even the greatest story tellers of all time would be proud to call their own.
I’ve heard people argue in the past that “games can’t be art” and even if that statement was to be true, nothing will ever get closer to breaching that divide as The Unfinished Swan. Everything about this game from the artistic styling, the story, the mechanics, the pacing is polished to absolute perfection and for those who worry oddly about the length of games, there’s great replay value too.
I’ve beaten myself up a bit since writing my Journey review because I really should have awarded it a 10 on reflection. Now though, I’m glad I didn’t in a way because that wouldn’t have left any room for one of the most magical and inspiring games I’ve ever played.
Sony Santa Monica now have not one, but two serious game of the year contenders and in The Unfinished Swan, they have a true gaming masterpiece worthy of hanging in any art gallery, anywhere in the world. There are many ‘exclusive’ reasons to own a Playstation 3 but I can’t think of one more compelling than this, as close to gaming perfection as you’re ever likely to experience.
The End…Tweet this!