Tuesday, October 30, 2012

REVIEW - The Unfinished Swan.

The Unfinished Swan is quite certain that it's very clever and very deep.  There's a semi-touching storybook narrative involving an orphan and the hundreds of unfinished paintings his mother made, but it never really resonates or comes to what feels like an emotionally honest conclusion.

It has one brilliant idea.  The game begins with a pure white screen, blank save for a targeting reticle in the center.  There is no tutorial, there are no instructions, so you fiddle with your dualshock until you tap R1 and fling a blob of black ink into the empty space.  It splatters across the floor, and suddenly you can perceive space and distance and depth.

This is a genius moment, and Act I of The Unfinished Swan sees you using the mechanic to find your way through a pure-white world, dashing its architecture with darkness to make your way forward.

Occasionally, you turn around and look back.  If there is anything to see, it's because you painted it.  If it's beautiful, it's only beautiful because you just so happened to throw your ink blobs in just such a way to create it.

Frickin' awesome.  I particularly loved the trees.  Throwing ink up into tree trunks is delightful.  It feels so organic and magical and mysterious and genius, you start wondering how the devs can maintain this remarkable sense of whimsy and creativity.

Turns out they can't.

The final two-thirds of the game simply see you exploring a gently shaded world and solving jumping puzzles.  That's it.

After the remarkable opening, The Unfinished Swan trips over its own genius and falls flat on its face, unable to offer any mechanics or experiences that compare to its first act.  The story comes to a limp, uninspired end, and one starts to wonder if the entire exercise would have been more memorable, more perfect if you'd never progressed beyond the pure-white world.

The independent developer space is hugely important to the creative ecosystem of modern game development - it allows us remarkable experiences like the first twenty minutes of The Unfinished Swan - but that one gleaming facet isn't enough to give the title a recommendation.

It's a bit like Julie & Julia - no, it's not the best movie in the world and God I wish Amy Adams' character (I love Amy Adams, for the record) would just shut the hell up - but it's worth experiencing for Meryl Streep's performance as Julia Child alone.  The Unfinished Swan is worth experiencing for its opening, but then - just like I do when I watch Julie & Julia - I'll skip over the Amy Adams story and just enjoy the part that's fantastic.

The rest I can do without.

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