Developer: Giant Sparrow
Sony’s PS3 continues to lead as a platform striving to offer as many diverse experiences as possible. Admittedly, most have them have come from ThatGameCompany in the shape of Flow, Flower and Journey. So it’s good to see a new studio emerge from under Sony’s wing to show us such a visually arresting game.
While the game is a first person title, I’d hesitate to class it as a first-person shooter, although it handles that way. There are no bullets here though, only paint and a few platforming sections.
The story plays out like a bedside fairytale complete with narrated and illustrated cutscenes. After the death of both of his parents, a young boy is told he can only take one of the hundreds of unfinished paintings left behind by his mother to the orphanage.
Taking the eponymous Unfinished Swan, he falls asleep at the orphanage and slips into a dream world where he’s always chasing an evasive swan. There are story tapestries to discover that tell a tale of a King while also explaining the strange game world itself. There are allegorical links between the boy’s sense of loss and the lonely King’s woes and the emotive responses can be strong as you start to put things together for yourself.
Onto the game itself. It begins with only a white screen. Save for the small targeting dot, everything is completely white. Turn around, still white, look up and down, also white. This leads to inevitable button presses around the controller as you try to find a way out. The triggers fire out a black paintball that explodes in a splat of paint when it hits something. Using this paint, you discover where walls and objects are by splashing them. The closest comparison I can think of is when a film has an invisible man revealed by throwing water, paint or flour on him. Shooting to discover your environment rather than killing is a unique concept that generally works very well.
At first, you make your way around a windy corridor before emerging into a forest, slowly painting your way through reveals trees, fences and a stream that must be crossed by splashing some stepping-stones before reaching a ruined castle. At one point, you reach a high spot and are able to turn around and gaze over your painted route through the whiteness. Everything you can see has essentially been created by you. There’s nothing else like this out there.
Moments like these are often stunning in their visual design but your paintballing antics can ruin the game’s aesthetic at times. You see, the paint is incredibly black. So black, that if you fire it close to an object it’s so concentrated that you can’t make out multiple objects, a table against a wall for example is just a pure black part of the screen. So restrained firing can paint a more detailed environment than heavily spamming areas.
The initially pure white level design doesn’t last for long though as the world starts to gain a bit more pre-existing detail. The castle looks like a making-of scene thanks to the lack of graphical texture layers, but it’s still visually crisp and smooth. Upon gaining access to the castle, your paint turns watery blue and can be used to entice climbable vines to creep over floors and walls.
This is where some simple puzzles are introduced. The vines can’t travel over cracks, so you need to explore to find a clear path for them. The green vines look great when you turn back after a lengthy climb to see the trail of them you have laid down. There’s a really impressive view during this castle stage, but I won’t spoil it for you. You’ll know it when you see it. Sadly, the climbing itself breaks immersion a little, as the camera faces sideways against the wall as if you’re walking forwards on a very narrow ledge.
A nighttime level adds some urgency to the otherwise relaxing nature of the game as you have to dash between light-emitting plants to avoid spiders in the darkness. Further tension creeps up your spine when you need to stay in range of a glowing ball that’s floating down a river while you run along the riverbank, with every shadow hosting hungry red eyes.
There’s a further level design change, which I’ll avoid going into because the game is only a few hours long, so there’s no point saying much more. The length is my chief concern with the game as each area feels very short and stops just as you feel it’s gaining momentum as you get the hang of things.
There are no tutorials whatsoever, giving the game an air of exploration usually lacking today. But you’ll never be stumped by puzzles and will probably finish the game in one sitting, almost by accident. Replayability is added by revisiting chapters to find any remaining collectable balloons and you’ll find that you can really whip through the whole thing in even less time once you know where to look for all the exits.
You also have the option of playing the game using a PlayStation Move motion control and a nav stick. If you’ve played any FPS title with the Move, then you’ll know what to expect as far as moving and turning goes. Firing paint is assigned to the Move button instead of the trigger, which is odd, annoying and a little uncomfortable. Turning around is too slow so looking around for exits or hidden balloons may test your patience.
What does work nicely though is being able to aim paintballs anywhere on the screen rather than just at the centre. Overall though, I see no reason to use a Move controller over a pad other than to give the underused controllers a charge to remind the batteries that they may be called upon one day. Sports Champions 2 is out soon after all.
Earlier, I mentioned that the story is a strong element of the game, but players will need to explore the game world, as much of the King’s tale is only explained when you find a hidden tapestry, indicated by a gold letter on a wall. Some of these can be easily missed which will rob you of some of the finer moments The Unfinished Swan has to offer. While missed balloons are listed in the chapter select screen, tapestries are not. Ultimately, the overall experience of the game is not particularly deep despite some exceptional moments, so the £9.99 price tag may be a little high for such a short title.
- Uncovering the world with paint feels very innovative
- Some excellent moments in the story
- Provides some beautifully unique scenes
- Two or three hours for £9.99
- Gameplay elements often change just as they’re gathering momentum
- Climbing ‘animation’ is sloppy
The Short Version: Your desire for something new and unique will have to over-ride paying so much for such a short experience. The Unfinished Swan is truly unique though and visually beautiful to behold. I just wish some of the paint-to-discover and nighttime stages were longer, as they end just as they threaten greatness.