It’s all about knowing how to get out while you’re ahead, if countless heist films and crime stories have taught me anything. In the case of The Swindle, it’s the thief who goes for one score too many, gambles it all and comes up short, but it’s not like you have much of a choice, with just 100 days before Scotland Yard brings The Devil’s Basilisk online and wipes out crime from this steampunk rendition of 1869 London.
The Swindle is a game of stealth-based risk management and constantly trying to decide just how much you can get away with. You start off small, breaking into some house in the slums, grabbing the cash that happens to be lying around on the floor as the cheapest guard robots patrol back and forth. All you need is £100 in order to buy the hacking ability and be able to draw larger lump sums of cash from the steampunk computers.
Each building is procedurally generated, with a higgledy-piggledy arrangement of rooms, joined up with corridors, insane drops to slide down, nonsensical dead ends, traps, guards and more. They’re not places that you’d want to live, but they make for fun and unique challenges to try and tackle without being discovered. Robots patrol back and forth, with their narrow field of vision clearly displayed for you to see and avoid, as you work your way through a building.
A few more successful robberies in the Slums, and you should have enough cash to either buy access to airspace over the next area, the Warehouse District, or perhaps you’d prefer to get the double jump or some dynamite, to blow holes in walls? At this early stage, it seems unimaginable to be able to save the tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds needed to buy the quadruple jump, automated steam purge – which shrouds you in a cloud of steam – a teleporter, let alone the £400,000 you need to actually make an attempt on the Basilisk itself. When you get discovered and have to try and escape, or die in foolish accidents several times on the trot, it starts to feel like an uphill struggle.
Keeping the same thief alive for multiple heists starts to earn you bonus multipliers, which mean you can pull in huge sums of cash from later areas, but even with a freshly generated replacement, you go in with all of your purchased tools and abilities. The bug in particular is very useful, as it can bring in cash each second until it’s discovered, even after you’ve moved on to another heist. It almost feels overpowered, but staying alive brings in the money you need to quickly acquire more abilities and tools.
Even so, you probably won’t succeed during your first set of 100 days, though you can extend the deadline. There is a distinct learning process, as you try to master the kinds of situations the procedural generation can put before you. Each of the five locations presents you with more maniacally sprawling buildings, new enemies who might be go on alert or send out miniature drones if they hear you nearby, cameras which sweep back and forth, guard robots who have longer fields of vision and guns and even crazier things. Even with hours of experience under your belt, it’s easy to slip up and get spotted, at which point the whole building goes on alert, the excellent steampunk themed soundtrack kicks up a notch and you know there’s little time to get to your escape pod before the cop robots show up.
The Swindle in and of itself – the final mission which sees you trying to steal The Devil’s Basilisk from a generated police station – will take several attempts just to learn what it is, exactly, you need to do in order to succeed. Even then it’s far from an easy task and delights in seeing you defeated and needing to fork out another £400,000 for each attempt. It makes finally succeeding all the sweeter.
It is the epitome of a “one more go” game, which kept me coming back time and again. It might be that I just had a long and tense foray into one of the later stages and made it out with my pockets bulging with cash, but more often that not l have failed to make it out alive and want to redeem myself. I’ve become obsessed with getting the best possible start to my campaign of pilfering, starting time and again to build up my multiplier with the starting thief and daydreaming of being able to make it all the way through to the end with him for what will be a brutally difficult trophy to achieve.
This is a game with a mean streak, and that starting thief, Henry Beresford, rarely makes it more than a dozen attempts. As soon as I fail, I immediately quit the game and turn off the console or PC, only to find myself coming back to the game five minutes later. My failure is more often of my own doing, but there is a woolliness to the controls when trying to grab onto a wall and there are the little quirks and glitches that can occasionally crop up as a consequence of the procedurally generated levels. Guard robots are sometimes spawned on window ledges, tiny little drones somehow manage to clip through a boarded up window, and other oddities which, when they do occur, can feel unfair on the player.
The game feels like it would be perfectly well suited to the PS Vita, but the platform’s hardware end up as a disappointing hinderance to the gameplay. It’s still playable, but there are long loading times, graphical pop-in, it feels slightly more prone to odd little glitches and the frame rate isn’t as smooth as it is on PS4, which adds a further quite unwelcome layer of tension and uncertainty to everything you do. It also doesn’t help that everything on screen just feels really small, when trying to position yourself just close enough to be able to hack a mine, rather than set it off.
They say that crime never pays, but in The Swindle you can come out ahead if you play your cards right. In this madcap steampunk rendition London, a city of ludicrous buildings filled with robots and traps, the key is learning how to quit while you’re ahead. It’s all too easy to slip up and foolishly get spotted – and yes, the occasional glitch or quirk of procedural generation can feel unfair – but it makes each success all the more tense and rewarding.
Versions tested: PS4, PS Vita, PC