Developer: Giant Sparrow
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 3
The Unfinished Swan is a visually stunning children’s fairy tale. The story is as charming as it is quirky and the art is very well done, but that doesn’t mean that the game isn’t without its fair share of problems.
Within the first hour of play, I encountered three issues that might have encouraged me to stop playing had I not been reviewing this game. The first problem was with the simple game mechanics. While one of the major reasons I was interested in this game was the use of paint splatters to reveal the settings, in practice this took a long time to do. The balls took just enough time to arc and splatter that I quickly adopted a spin and spray technique, at which point I was just splattering paint so that I could see enough to move forward. The magic was gone. (Granted, I did not use the PS Move controller, which may have worked better than the standard PS3 controller.)
The second major issue, and the most debilitating, probably happened in large part due to the spin and spray technique I had developed for throwing paint balls. I noticed after playing the game for about an hour or so that I had begun to feel nauseated. Thirty minutes later, I had to stop because I was feeling too sick. I’ve since looked the issue up online and have found that I’m certainly not the only one with this problem. It’s just weird to me, because I don’t usually get motion sickness. I just think the game, due to the very nature of how it is meant to be played, is very disorienting. The nausea was worst in the first few levels. In the later levels, when color and actual settings are introduced into the game, I only felt a little nauseated and was better able to play.
The third major issue was the pacing of the game. The first few levels were very slow. I think this was, in large part, due to the fact that you had to splatter paint everywhere in order to see anything, but regardless, the first few levels took me more time to complete than each of the rest of the chapters of the game did. Furthermore, I didn’t know what was going on or where I was supposed to go or what I was supposed to do, which left me wandering around in circles a few times, trying to figure out the next step.
Which brings me to another point. While the game is, as I mentioned before, essentially a children’s fairy tale, I’m not sure who the audience was supposed to be. It seems like the game does its best to appeal to everyone, but I think there are some parts that aren’t as child-friendly, and so I don’t know if the game is really meant for little kids. There are plenty of darker moments in the game such as the spiders in the dark forest or the countless little off-hand sentences in the pages you find as you play the game. Then again, Grimm’s fairy tales were pretty dark, so who knows?
However, once I was a few hours into the game, the last few chapters were very fun to play. The game quickly morphed from an abstract concept into a riveting story. The settings gradually filled with more and more color, making for fanciful worlds to explore, and the paint balls began to be used for so much more than just flinging paint. In later levels, you fling water instead, which causes vines to grow (though it took me forever to figure this out as you aren’t explicitly told and it isn’t readily apparent). There’s another area where your paint balls are essentially useless except for hitting objects. And then there are the areas where you’re in a blueprint and the balls are used to make platforms. This variety made for an interesting experience as, particularly with the vines, it became easy and fun to go just about anywhere the game would let you.
At the same time, the narrative picked up, too. I found it hard to stop playing in the last couple of chapters, I got so swept up in the story. Confusion about what’s going on (who’s this king? where am I? what’s going on?) melts away into an understanding of what the story is truly about. By the time the game ends, you’re left with a sense of wonder and a desire to keep turning the game over in your mind to figure out what it all really meant.
In that way, the game was not unlike playing a cross-over between Journey and Papo & Yo. Just like Journey, you start off in a simple (yet beautiful) world that becomes more complicated and even terrifying near the end. The whole time you’re aware of one goal: following that object (for Journey, the mountain; in Unfinished Swan, the swan) to your destination. It is all of the events on the way that paint the picture and create the story for you to interpret as you will. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the team at Giant Sparrow were inspired by Journey, as they even provide a reference to it in their game.
Like Papo & Yo, The Unfinished Swan ultimately ends up being (in part) about a child who is exploring a fantasy world in an effort to understand the truth of his family. Just remove the negative emotions of Papo & Yo and replace them with the wonder instilled by Journey.
All in all, despite the game’s flaws, The Unfinished Swan is worth finishing. It really picks up halfway through and leaves you with a thought-provoking tale. However, I would just recommend trying it out first if at all possible to make sure you won’t get sick while playing it.