Lost in a Crowd

Swarm Screenshot

HIGH Making a tower of shoulder-standin' buddies is as cute as a kitten sandwich.

LOW Dealing with the scoring system saps a lot of joy from the game.

WTF The "Mama" character is pretty amazing.  Why can't more mothers be enormous, gelatinous blobs who spew bipedal underlings?

An old saying in the advertising world goes something like this: "The best way to kill a mediocre product is with great advertising."

Set that aside a second, though, and ask just what a small game developer might do to promote their new game? A video, right?

It's hard to resist creating entertaining demo videos that pump up a title's unique mechanics.  Don't forget, too, that in the Land of Viraltopia, a wry short film can generate laughs and just the right tone to match an upcoming indie release. Clearly, videos are a no-brainer, but they're also the perfect way to put into focus just what's lacking with the final product. Case in point: Hothead Games's Swarm.

Released recently as a downloadable title for Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) and PlayStation Network (PSN), Swarm tasks the player with maneuvering a group of fifty tiny blue imps through a death-ridden, nightmarish landscape where the only right way to the end is often the bloody way.

Plenty of pre-release promotional videos showcased Swarm's unique mechanics to great effect. The player controls these peons as one: a press of the joystick sends them all in the same, brainless direction. The concept is grasped quickly, and with relish. Soon after though, it becomes a frustrating slog through similar, strict stages, dashing any hopes for the expected jovial, nail-biting mini-odyssey at which Hothead's promotions hinted.

Swarm Screenshot

The designers' big miscalculation here was the fashioning of a game about scoring points over one about straight survival. The allure of the game for me was the way I could imagine my group of alien buddies bumbling through a hellish scenario, barely making it out with just one tiny swarmite remaining after passing through a sea of whirling blades, bottomless pits, and exploding fireballs.

This scenario occurs, and it's thrilling, but it suddenly becomes meaningless if the little guys don't hit their target score for a level.

That's right, miss that score and it's back to the start—of the same level that was just played. All the sweat and teeth-grinding and sweetness of last-chance victory are swept away knowing that progress can only be made by mastering the current stage. With the theft of these emotional moments, the already meaningless lives of the tiny protagonists are made even less significant. Go back and get a higher score.

All this would be forgivable if the swarmites were a ton of fun to spend time with. Unfortunately, they're not quite fully-realized characters, either. The little guys are too often lost in the shuffle of a stage, with no real audio or visual "oomph" to match their movement or their inevitable passing, which points to a definite oversight in at least the sound design department. They're mainly silent punching bags, which renders their deaths just little tick marks on the score card.

Granted, listening to them scream tiny death screams over and over would certainly get annoying after a while, but they don't seem to make much of a sound at all. Combine that with the fact that the camera is zoomed out to accommodate the level design and the fact that there are fifty of them onscreen at a time, and you've got a bunch of little guys who don't make a lot of an impression during play.

Similarly, it might be a more engaging experience if they were exciting to control, but the game falters here as well. While the basic movement concepts succeed, it's not always easy to maneuver the group through the more complicated parts of the game. The challenge of the group dynamics is not unwelcome, but it can be infuriating at times. Jumping the group can be an especially confounding experience, especially when it involves transitioning between vertical or horizontal planes.

Swarm Screenshot

From there, players might hope at least for some expanded actions that change up the game, but they're again let down; the game's core mechanics are really never expanded upon outside of the first level. The game gets harder, for sure, but the action of your characters will not vary much throughout the game's dozen-or-so challenges. One could argue that the score-based style of the game nullifies the need for blossoming mechanics, but I tired quickly of the same sorts of dashing and jumping puzzles.

Finally, the game is not ultimately clear on how we're supposed to feel about the deaths of its inhabitants.

From the title screen to the existence of its "death medals" (which are earned as more and more of your creatures die) it's clear that the developers were enjoying the wanton destruction of their clueless creations. They want us to enjoy it, too, and it's certainly not entirely without charm. What's odd is how the game attempts to balance it all by rewarding your deaths, then providing bonuses for keeping the swarmites alive.

Allowing them to die increases the score multiplier (so you can clear a level), but then many mid-level bonuses are only activated by keeping a particular number of them alive. It eventually just works out to rote memorization of levels and remembering exactly how many survivors you might need in order to hit a switch to release more points. It's this constant satisfaction / regret with the deaths of your characters that is ultimately both confusing and irritating.

Though short, Swarm lasts a bit too long, if you ask me, being that it fails to expand upon its novel concept. It's a shame, too, because when you get back to what I brought up before, Hothead's marketing is enjoyably irreverent and funny. Take a look at the promotional videos on their website, and it's clear that they really love this concept, and that they're attempting to inject their products with a very particular sense of humor. If only the game matched their ads in its pizzazz and charm. Rating: 4.0 out of 10. (20 out of 50?)

Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately nine hours of play were devoted to single-player modes (completed one time).

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains animated blood and cartoon violence. The deaths of the the titular creatures are never grisly or overly elaborate, though there appears a good deal of the creatures' paint-like, blue-colored blood.  They don't seem to suffer much, as well.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The game is entirely devoid of specific audio cues.  Additionally, all objectives are clearly spelled out in text.

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