Critical Consensus: The Unfinished Swan
A quirky PS3 exclusive that divides opinion on concept versus content
Sony's console platforms have always had a reputation for enjoying a bit of cultural and conceptual edginess, from the days of Incredible Crisis to modern oddities like Fl0wer. It fits tightly with the brand's off-kilter ad campaigns and marketing image - ostentatiously subversive in contrast to some of its stiffer rivals.
That atmosphere of experimentation has lead to a wealth of unique and memorable titles, but also its fair share of disappointments. The Unfinished Swan has been in gestation for some time now, building considerable hype, but can its captivating visual gimmickry hold the attention of enough gamers to consider itself a success? Will a 150 minute experience where the main action is to throw paint at seemingly blank canvasses really find an audience in a month swollen with AAA releases?
The answer to that likely lies a week away, when the game hits the virtual shelves of the redesigned PSN store, but today's embargo lift will at least give us the comprehensive picture of the critical reception to Giant Sparrow's paint-flinging curiosity. At least, it might if reviewer's reactions weren't so mixed.
Always likely to polarise opinion, The Unfinished Swan already has a three point spread of review scores, after just a handful of the bigger outlets have published, although bigger numbers are proving more popular, with nines predominant in the the early stages.
Perhaps the most interesting of those high-scorers, certainly in terms of the presentation, is that of TheSixthAxis, with a review which celebrates freedom, individuality and style.
"The Unfinished Swan's greatest trick, and its most successful, isn't the elaborate technology behind the convincing paint splatters, or the exquisitely melancholic story," opens this 9/10 assessment. "Rather, it's the blissful lack of direction, interference and signposting."
Whilst that imparted freedom is initially disorienting, TheSixthAxis finds that tight level design and gentle visual cues keep the player on a curiously well-defined path through the experience, from the thrill of the first paint splatter to the gradually evolving latter stages of the game.
"The Unfinished Swan's wonderful level design draws you back in quickly. Narrow corridors, initially bounced against by a wayward, excitable player, lead to an outside area, complete with a river, wildlife and a grand set of stairs. You'll need that paint to find your way, of course, but there's a surprisingly delicate guidance at work here, the game urging you forward without ever making it obvious."
"Once the monochromatic, polar visuals are left behind and colour seeps in, some of the magic leaks away."
Hinting at the ways in which that paint throwing changes gear is tricky without liberally splashing around the sort of spoilers which would destroy the experience for many, but TheSixthAxis notes forays into platforming, a tense, spooky section which pits the player against nefarious foes and areas where time becomes a lethal factor. Perhaps predictably, none of these nuances seem to quite recapture the magic of the game's first moments.
"The Unfinished Swan, as you'll discover, isn't just about black and white. You cant fault the developers for expanding the central device, of course, but it's a reasonable statement to suggest that the first area in the game is the most exciting, the most innovative and the most enjoyable."
Whilst "It's not that everything else is padding," "some of the game simply doesn't feel as tightly produced and honed as those opening few levels do." Nonetheless, the game offers replayability for TheSixthAxis thanks to sequestered balloon collectibles and a few neat tricks purchased with those tokens.
It's clear, though, that for this reviewer, the real effect of the game is an emotional one, rooted in narrative. "The Unfinished Swan isn't about levels, toys or balloons. It's about a story, a story that grows with the telling and wraps the player in a heartbreaking tale of regret, remorse and the inevitable conclusion we all face."
Eurogamer's Dan Whitehead, representing the other end of the score spectrum with a six, finds promise in both story and mechanic but sees that potential tempered considerably by a limited scope.
"The conceit of a bereaved boy working his way towards emotional closure by filling an empty dreamworld is a powerful one - but every step away from the bold vision of the first level makes that tale increasingly abstract."
Dan Whitehead, Eurogamer
The game's core paint splashes are, Whitehead feels, "an absolutely charming effect" but one which, like the game as a whole, "[is] a delightful idea but one that's never fully developed." Despite the game's opening section resulting in visual progress which "You could take any screenshot from...and hang it in a gallery," Whitehead also feels that the game's charm slips away once other aspects are introduced.
"The black-on-white aesthetic is dropped before the end of the first of four chapters, as shadows and other details are filled in for you. You still have to throw paint to discern the way ahead, but with the edges picked out for you, it starts to feel more like colouring within the lines."
For Whitehead, the progression beyond the original conceit stretches the game beyond it's natural boundaries, leaving him with a sense of discord and a patchwork sense of self.
"They're all interesting enough concepts on their own," he says of the four stages which follow the iconic opening, "but the relationship between them is awkward and apparently arbitrary. They're more like brainstormed ideas threaded together than a coherent vision, and while they mostly work in a gameplay sense, they lead to a fragmented and unsatisfying experience."
More forgiving of The Unfinished Swan's undeniable foibles is IGN, which awards another nine to a game "best paired with a cup of cocoa, a comfy blanket, and surround sound headphones."
Greg Miller's take on a game which is "nothing short of spectacular" is that here is something unique to be taken on its own merits and consumed at a leisurely pace, unfettered by the expectations of the medium.
"The Unfinished Swan is short and the challenges you face in the two-hour game aren't all that challenging - but they don't need to be. This is a storybook for you to open up and get lost in."
greg Miller, IGN
Interestingly, whilst Miller shares the opinion that its the first level of The Unfinished Swan which will define the experience, he's clearly more impressed by those mechanics which come later than most of his fellow reviewers. Instead of seeing them as dilutions of a brave decision, Miller welcomes them as new twists on the core concept.
"The true beauty of the game is that each chapter of the storybook brings a new gameplay element or environment into view that has little to nothing to do with black paint," he writes.
"The hurling of water to create vines, moving a glowing orb for protection, building platforms - it might all sound like a jumble of incomplete thoughts now, but those eureka moments are the heart of the game and it would do me no good to spoil them for you here."
Miller also touches on the subject of perceived value for money, clearly an issue for any game which offers between two and three hours of content, but expects charm and collectibles to offer enough meat to justify the price tag.
"The Unfinished Swan didn't overstay its welcome and it didn't lose its focus for the sake of extending its playtime. However, I know not every gamer making the $14 (£10) investment will see it that way. Still, the game is aching to be replayed. Each level features collectible balloons that you can then spend on in-game 'toys' such as a balloon radar, concept art, and so on."
Pitching between the review extremes is OPM's Joel Gregory, sticking with a score of seven for the platform exclusive.
Welcoming the feeling of "stepping into a child's bedtime story," Gregory still finds that the game over-extends itself, resulting in a whole which is "slightly too limited to fully capture that kind of magic." Put down to a lack of variety, oversimplicity and lack of challenge, Gregory's unfavourable comparison's to Journey and Limbo highlight the sort of conceptual company which Giant Swallow's first title finds itself amongst.
"The Unfinished Swan deserves high praise for being inventive, unique and absolutely beautiful. But this shouldn't obscure the fact that these things apply more to the look and the core mechanic than the gameplay and how said mechanic meaningfully develops."
The distinction, then, seems to be how impressed you are by something of a one-trick pony, no matter how initially compelling that first trick may be. Perhaps one to file under "pretty and clever" rather than "universal appeal."