Genre mashups are like a mixing together a fancy drink. If you want it to taste great, you can’t just drop in random tasty ingredients and call it a day, you need a little finesse and a careful hand. SwapQuest is like a delicious mixed cocktail you got at a cheap hotel bar, but some of it got spilled as it was placed on the table and the glass has a weird stain on the rim that keeps bothering you.
SwapQuest, like so many indie games finding their way onto the Vita these days, is a port of a smartphone game. If you grew up playing the pipe-swapping Powerpuff Girls game on the Cartoon Network website like I did, the gameplay here will be more than familiar to you. If, for some reason, that point of reference is lost on you, then the game mixes the puzzle-like dynamic of swapping tiles to create a path of movement with a lot of well-realized RPG mechanics and fantasy tropes. While the illustration style of the game is a little too “Bible Camp Education Game” for me, the in-game pixel-art and simple character sprites do wonders.
Right from the start, the game blew me away with a couple of little touches. For example, it opens with a scrolling story exposition of words and illustrations, but you can take control yourself and scroll up and down to make words and art disappear and reappear, with each piece of art shifting and moving as it comes to the center of the screen.
In this world, a great evil was sealed away in a bottle, but as with any antagonistic spirit in a bottle, that sucker got out again. Now it’s up to the royal family to save the day, but while the king does something I’ve never seen a king do in an RPG before and fight the evil villain himself – when great strides are being made for better representation in videogames, it’s still great to see a scruffy old RPG king get out of his throne and wave his sword around. However, it’s his son or daughter who is tasked with exploring the land to gather crystals that will help restore order.
The general rhythm of the game has you selecting a level on a world map and dropping into it with the task of switching tiles around to reach the finish line before an auto-scrolling wall of dark evil gets you – it’s a very literal finishing line, strangely enough, with a checkered flag and everything. You have enemies that you can fight along the way, and you really should, because avoiding enemies and losing out on the EXP and gems will leave you sorely unprepared for later levels. There are also little side diversions like treasure chests and mini-bosses, as well as unique level challenges like finding secret enemies or clearing it within a time limit.
Playing through these levels and prioritizing your movements and your panel layout is a fun and engaging challenge, and it’s definitely a game where you’ll have a hard time holding a conversation while you play it. Unfortunately, it sometimes felt like a tiring chore to get to the end of a level, and part of that comes from some nagging presentation issues.
The pace your character moves at is very slow, and while this is a good thing from the gameplay perspective because it helps give you time to plan your strategy, the fact that the actual visual of your character has them slowly walking along the path only makes it feel even longer. On top of that, the game’s soundtrack is frustratingly generic fantasy-fare, and you’ve experienced the entirety of any BGM within 60 seconds. Levels can average out at around 7-10 minutes, and spending that much time watching your character slowly crawl through a level as your mind goes numb from the generic music slowly crawling into your ears can drive you pretty crazy.
Thankfully the gameplay is switched up regularly. Every few stages you’ll run into a boss fight, where there is no auto-scrolling or finish line. It’s just you and a huge monster, and you need to maneuver the map and learn what makes the boss tick to find out how you’re supposed to beat them. The boss fights follow the formula of any great fantasy boss encounter and are as much of a puzzle-like encounter with as rewarding a moment of revelation as any Zelda encounter.
These fights help prepare you for the Sky Tower section of the game, where the gameplay follows a similar puzzle-like format of having you swap tiles to fulfil certain conditions and solve environmental puzzles that halt your progress. It’s a nice way to break things up, but it would have made more sense to spread these Sky Tower segments throughout the rest of the game.
Of course, on top of this, there are the aforementioned RPG elements that also help keep you hooked to the game. You gain EXP and stat upgrades from defeated monsters, and collect gems to spend on new skills, as well as weapons and even upgrades for those weapons. There are even weird side quests to help you get more gems like dodging bees for a minute or collecting items on a field. It’s all really well realised and developed, and the game comes out feeling like a true puzzle-RPG rather than a puzzle game with those elements simply tacked on afterward.
SwapQuest has a lot of great things going for it, but the handful of issues are really, really major ones. For all the stuff I enjoy about the game, the fact that actually playing the game ends up nearly putting me to sleep after more than 2 or 3 levels is a huge issue to me. I can definitely recommend the game, but I think it’s best played in short bursts if you want to stay sane.