Review: Swarm for XBLA

Hothead Games has certainly released some fantastic downloadable games, including the Penny Arcade series, which is the first game outside of Pokemon with turn-based combat that I liked, to the hilarious and one of my person favorites on Xbox Live Arcade: Deathspank.  Does Hothead go three for three with their newest IP Swarm? Or will it having you wishing that you could have a molten ball of lava fall on your head instead?

Swarm has you avoiding hazards at every turn as a… well swarm of little blue monster things known as Swarmites.  Each level requires you to make it to the end and collect a certain number of points along the way.  Gaining points uninterrupted will allow you to build combos, as will sacrificing (or simply losing) a Swarmite or two.  As you progress you help to improve Mamma, which has crashed on this very odd and very deadly planet.

Swarmites will die by the hundreds with each attempt at each level. Even with carefully planned maneuvers many little blue flames will be extinguished in the name of Mamma.  The environments, though too dark at times, are both entertaining and visually interesting; like something taken directly from the latest Tim Burton movie.  The planet the Swarmites have to survive is a very hostile one, with a surprisingly large amount of exposed saws… Overall the presentation of Swarm is superb, from the twisted world that honestly just looks dangerous even at a glance, to the menu in which you can continuously tap the Y button to experience any number of various Swarmite deaths.  Overall the aesthetics were to my liking and like Hotheads previous efforts, the developer’s passion for the game really shines through.

At its’ core Swarm is a unique puzzle platformer.  The puzzle isn’t so much how to get through the level and progress forward, but how to progress through the level in a way that will net you the most amount of points.  Using the 50 Swarmites you always start off with (and occasionally replenish), they will smash, dart and even pile on top of each other in order to meet the point goal of each level.  Most of the controls are focuses on the two triggers and A button, and for the most part feels organic despite a lack of precision.  Your Swarmites will not always do exactly what you want them to do, this is in part cause by things such as the A button being both jump and stack, and how you jump once you have stacked your Swarmites up.  The dash is unpredictable and I often lost far more Swarmites than I should have making a relatively small jump, and with so many hazards around it can be incredibly difficult managing 50 Swarmites when they aren’t all bunch together (not to even mention how often some will get caught on items).  The style of the game is completely unique though, and overall it is an idea I like more than I dislike.

Navigating this strange world is undoubtedly difficult, requiring quick reflexes and most likely, more than one attempt.  In this, Swarm is sometimes as much about the luck of a good run as it is about any measurable skill in the game.  Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, something will just explode in the middle of the swarm or an unexpected chain of events will force you to jump just a bit too early and the end result will be the loss of your entire swarm.  Such events always seemed to happen to me on my best runs, and in more than one case cost me over 500,000 points.  This is Swarm at its’ most frustrating.  Some early levels will having you skyrocketing past the necessary point levels, others will having you trying over and over again and failing to get even half of what you need.  The difficulty spikes, and it spikes fast, and unfortunately the game does not have a strong draw for long play sessions; even when you are doing well.  The game is much more a “play a level here and there” type of game, but the difficulty in the later levels is by no means casual and more than once I simply quit the game after a random explosion wiped my Swarmites out and cause me such a loss in score I simply had no chance of making the threshold anymore.This is unfortunately a major flaw in a game that is otherwise a lot of fun to play.  I am not the type of person who likes to leave game’s unfinished, choosing instead to play them to completion and then move to the next.  Swarm however often had me so frustrated in later levels that I would exit out mid-level and have to force myself to start it back up again later.  While there is a great sense of accomplishment with finally beating a level you were stuck on, I’m not sure it outweighs the genuine frustration I felt in some of the later levels.  To be honest I can’t help but wonder if Hothead purposely cranked up the difficulty in order to stretch out the amount of time you would have to spend with the game since it is ultimately only 12 fairly short levels long, and if not for repeating levels in order to get a high enough score to move on (and occasionally going back to a level for a DNA strand), the game would be beatable in under two hours.  As is, the game does take longer, but many of the ways it extends that time feels cheap.  Plus there is simply no denying it; replaying a level to get a better score can be mildly amusing, but replaying a level over and over because you can’t even get a high enough score to unlock the next level quickly ruins the fun of the game in almost every way and starts to draw attention to its faults rather than its successes.

At the end of the day I was almost saddened at the game’s faults because it is an incredibly intriguing premise and it comes so close to working.  That may actually be the worst part of Swarm, how close it comes to being great without really hitting that peak.  Like cake that looks delicious but was made with too much flour.  That game certainly does have upsides though, and it is honestly worth checking out just for the humor in the multitude of ways your Swarmite might be shuffled loose the mortal coil, and the unique and somewhat innovative gameplay style.  I just can’t recommend you do so at its full price unless you are an old school score hound who simply loves a “getting that absolutely perfect run” in a game.  When you take the good and bad of Swarm you wind up with a game that just falls short of greatness.

Final Rating: 7.5/10

CBR Break Down:
Console Played On: Xbox 360
Approximate Time to Completion: ~5 Hours
Gamer Score Earned: 70
Price Bought at: N/A – Review copy furnished by Hothead Games
Current Price: 1200 Microsoft Points ($15)
Recommend Purchase Price: 600 MSP ($7.50) is a far more reasonable price for when this inevitably goes on sale, you can wait till then and I recommend you do.

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