The Unfinished Swan Review
Game: The Unfinished Swan
Developer: Giant Sparrow
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Available On: PlayStation 3 Only
As we grow older, we lose our innocence and sense of adventure. A friend’s plain garden could be a bustling city or decrepit wasteland. A blank canvas usually morphed into a sprawling story, thanks to imagination. For an adolescent, nothing can restrict the mind’s power to create a sweeping savannah or a vivacious metropolis out of absolutely nothing. Of course, that dies once bills need to be paid, dinner needs to be cooked and the house needs to be cleaned. Ah yes, in adulthood, dreams become delusions and the 9-to-5 takes precedence.
But to go back would be wonderful. Just for a day – a couple of hours, even – and suspend that disbelief in order to go on an adventure. The Unfinished Swan captures that feeling with ease. In a world where our priorities as adults don’t revolve around fun, it feels glorious to go back to an age where that was our one and only concern.
Monroe is a little boy whose mother loved to paint. She painted over 300 pictures but never finished a single one. The young buck’s favourite was one that featured a swan. One morning, he woke up from his slumber, saw that the swan had left the painting and had departed through some door that the little boy had never seen before. Naturally, Monroe followed the swan and our fairytale begins, and that’s what this is, a fairytale. The Unfinished Swan could just as easily be penned by Hans Christian Anderson and told to infants around the globe. Naturally, with any fable, this story is split up into four defining chapters; each having their own identity and split up into separate, smaller sections.
Once Monroe begins his journey to catch The Unfinished Swan, he is greeted with the colour white. No life bar, no map – pure, unadulterated nothingness. The one thing that the player has on their person is a trusty paintbrush, with which they can colour the world and reveal the path. As the player splatters black paint everywhere, things become a lot clearer – objects and surroundings can then be identified. There is no limit to how much colour you spray in the general area, it is all up to the player. You can tint the locale with reckless abandon, or create abstract art by being more cautious with your brush.
The Unfinished Swan makes the player see the world through the eyes of a child, both figuratively and literally, as the story plays out in first person. With that, comes innocence and the fear of the unknown. The initial blank slate is an example of that fear. As you become accustomed with your paraphernalia, there is one particular instance with a creature that will garner a player reaction, usually saved for something like Dead Space. With adventure, there are risks, and Monroe is susceptible to these risks. The Unfinished Swan is excellent in making the player feel uneasy about crossing certain thresholds and diving in head first. The little one’s aim is to encounter the incomplete bird, but not without gamble.
As you progresses through the game, you’ll encounter more of these dangers and also more gameplay mechanics. The Unfinished Swan isn’t merely an interactive colouring book, and each new element that is introduced brings about a whole new way to play. For example, at one stage, the brush obtains the characteristics of a water pistol. The game doesn’t hold your hand and describe how to advance, it leaves it up to the player to solve each puzzle and reach the next plateau. To go into great detail about how each iteration of the brush works would spoil the fun and surprise, but it has to be said that Giant Sparrow have done an incredible job of keeping it engaging. The same propulsion mechanic is used throughout, but how the studio manipulate it is a thing of beauty, reminiscent of the gels from Portal 2.
It would be remiss of anyone to overlook how beautiful this world is. One of the most iconic images of the entire experience is looking back on that first area where you got to know your paintbrush. As you proceed, take that chance to look upon your very first “painting”. It’s mesmerising to think that something that looked so barren becomes a thing of beauty once you add some shade. There are numerous areas that lack colour, but once the player applies a dark pigment, a fleshed out environ is revealed. Again though, without variety The Unfinished Swan would not be so special. Over time, the player is introduced to tinges of more colour, here and there. This transition is executed with the deftest of touches and deserves to be greatly applauded.
As Monroe attempts to catch up with the feathered runaway, the accompanying audio is exquisite. Amongst the child’s efforts to catch the escapologist, a story revolving around monarchs unravels. To go with that, the score follows a very regal tone with a conservative orchestral sound that is complimented through the use of synthesizers. The struggle of the protagonist can also be heard as he becomes scared of the hazards in his vicinity, or on the other hand, lets out an audible breath of amazement as he gazes upon beauty. The little things that the studio have done to encompass the childlike nature of the lead character are gorgeous in their subtlety.
The Unfinished Swan has also been enabled for the PlayStation 3’s struggling motion controller, Move. It’s not a requirement, just an option. Having that choice may be inviting to some players, but playing with the DualShock feels more precise. The platforming aspects where a gaping ravine lies below feel stilted when using Move. It isn’t the worst implementation of the the peripheral, but it breaks the immersion a little and can take the player out of the engrossing fairytale.
The story never outstays its welcome and the tale of The Unfinished Swan is told succinctly and expertly. There are only a few small issues, but on the whole, this is a stunning portrayal of a young man’s coming of age. To ensure that players go back into this story and relive the magic, there are balloons. Balloons are the only form of collectible in the game and also act as a currency to buy new items from the menu. To some who may be disgruntled by the brief narrative, this does give some incentive to go back.
VERDICT: Years in the making and Giant Sparrow have created something really special. It’s refreshing to see a new studio actualise their dreams and release not only a game with magnificent, yet simple mechanics, but also an endearing story. Monroe epitomises that wonder and awe that so many of us have as children when we encounter the smallest of things. With this game, as adults, be prepared to transform back to that cherub-like state when you begin your journey to find The Unfinished Swan.