We’re pioneers, us gamers. Name an alien world or abandoned edge-of-space outpost and it’s likely that we’ve boldly gone there. So why have The Swapper’s Theseus space station and the desolate rock it slowly orbits left us so unnerved?
Perhaps it’s the visuals. The Swapper is grainy, dark and cast in perpetual soft focus – your eyes can’t seem to find purchase on what should be cold, sterile metal and jagged, rocky ground. Its handcrafted art assets (constructed from clay models and everyday materials) could have easily lent homespun warmth to these clanking, empty corridors, but somehow they’ve done the opposite; shine your torch on the walls of Theseus station and the details can become murkier, the film grain fuzzier and the bloom more obscuring. And beneath all that, the absence of production line uniformity betrays itself: lines aren’t quite straight, details morph into blur. Facepalm Games has fashioned spaces that look more alien the closer you stare, and scored them with a soundtrack that’s equally unsettling, occasionally teasing the possibility of something more melodic, only to devolve into a harsh static drone.
All in all, the setting is perfect for a puzzle game built around existential despair. A puzzle-platformer structured like a Metroid title, The Swapper’s titular piece of B-movie tech allows you to make clones of yourself, which then move in tandem with their creator. By itself this sets up some neat synchronised switch-pressing puzzles, but the device’s secondary function swaps bodies with any of your replicas by firing at them. You can only swap into or place new clones based on current line of sight, and this means The Swapper’s puzzles are about deciphering the order in which you need to place copies, move around, and hop between them, all while ensuring no one steps out of place.
Soon the game introduces limiting factors in the form of red and blue smudges of light that limit your swapping and clone-placing respectively. These help set up some deviously complex tests, but their contrivance only goes to further the gap between The Swapper’s puzzling and its slowly revealed story. The Theseus station has secrets, of course – secrets that tie into your device’s disturbing powers – but for the most part the game’s exploration of such themes feels separate to the abstract challenges found in its puzzle rooms.
For the most part. But when you need to travel great vertical distances in The Swapper, you must daisy chain from clone to clone, placing each new copy above your head and swapping into it, letting your discarded shells fall to the ground. Its clever, creepy and macabre. And that goes for The Swapper as a whole.
The Swapper is available on Steam now.