The Swindle Review

By Mark Delaney, 2 years ago
Some games, most really, seek to empower its players. Challenges and difficulty arise, of course, but ultimately, and now more than ever, games often serve as an experience first. Fear of losing players' time and attention to the massive landscape of available titles has resulted in a lot of "press A to win" games wherein obstacles are seldom insurmountable and the player is showered with rewards. Size Five Games' The Swindle is not that type of game. Compared to the countless challenge-free games every year, this is admirable in theory, but put into practice the game often seemed to unfairly dish out punishment after punishment en route to my long and almost entirely fruitless career as a crook.

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The Swindle is a sidescrolling roguelike with an emphasis on stealth, hacking, and melee combat. Set in a fictional version of England a century and a half ago, the steampunk-infused environment is on the cusp of great change. In just 100 days, the world's most advanced security and anti-theft artificial intelligence, The Devil's Basilisk, will be born into existence. This Orwellian device will do to the country's criminals what Netflix did to Blockbuster. They'll be out a job, the AI will be too dominant to outsmart. So then, with just over three months of in-game time to work with, London's crooks gather to do the only thing they can do: steal The Devil's Basilisk before it's activated.

This 100 day format translates to 100 lives in classic roguelike fashion. Permadeath is always a threat to your many thieves and dying on the job means they'll quickly be shuffled out for a new, much less deceased criminal. Thankfully, any upgrades you've purchased are shared among characters, so the idea is to build up your arsenal of tools day by day, thief by thief, until you have what it takes to attempt a heist on the Basilisk. You start the game severely underpowered and with little money to be made. The basic traversal system consists of scaling walls, sneaking through corridors, and dodging the many patrolling robots. Collecting wads of cash lying around each house gives you very little money compared to the computers you are meant to hack. Your jumping ability is also limited to a single jump, with upgrades available to unlock double, triple, and even quadruple jumping. Some doors need to be hacked too, and some areas are just not maneuverable without these and other upgrades.

When you trip an alarm, the patient approach goes out the window.When you trip an alarm, the patient approach goes out the window.

No doubt the ability to hack computers should be the first priority for your thieves, but after that the wealth of upgrades that appeared to be a positive attribute might quickly become a detriment. Over time your upgrades are meant to build you up to be a competent crook, but the game doesn't wait for you. If you fail a few heists at first, you'll be setting yourself up for failure right away, making the entire 100 day journey nearly impossible. The enemies and intricacy of level design seems to advance based on what day you're on rather than according to your actual progress. Because each level is procedurally generated, levels can sometimes be inherently unbeatable for your character. I was 25 or 30 days into my playthrough before I really felt at all capable of pulling off a successful heist, and by then the game had already introduced so many new facets, I was always lagging behind. There's also almost no hint as to which upgrades might be most important. It's a system of trial and error, except the trial lasts the full 100 days. You can't trade in your upgrades even after you might come to find the one(s) you chose aren't nearly as helpful as they sounded in the skill tree. I bought the first three (of four) levels of hacking abilities at various points throughout my play time. The first one allowed me to get into the lucrative computers, a necessity to achieve even basic success. The second allowed me to hack into electronically locked doors, which helped immensely when I made it to the second of the game's six levels. The third said it would allow me to hack into security systems and shut down certain anti-theft measures I had been dealing with. "Oh good," I thought, "that must be what those red command center rooms are." I was wrong, apparently. I spent a great deal of my hard earned money on that upgrade, and I never really figured out what it does. It didn't do what I thought, that much I know.

Other upgrades are delightfully overpowered, if you luck out in discovering them in time. With about 25 days left, I purchased Bugs, which are small insectoid looking devices you leave beside computers. They would not only hack the system for me, but they would siphon the money directly into my account. Typically any money earned would vanish if, and probably when, I died before I was able to escape, but with these instruments nothing I did mattered. They even continued wiring money to me after I had moved to another house. I was finally rich, making 30-50K pounds per level, sometimes more. I had three bugs running at once sometimes. I would arrive at a new house and my money would be skyrocketing before I even broke in. These bugs were elsewhere in the neighborhood doing all the work for me. Sadly this was all discovered too late. With just a quarter of my remaining days, the writing was on the wall; I wouldn't get to the Basilisk in time. I spent those days using these bugs to buy more and more upgrades, I could afford them for once. I experimented with new gameplay mechanics like map-altering bombs, a steam-powered cloaking device, and Spider-Manesque wall-clinging abilities. It made the whole experience so much more enjoyable. I was no longer powerless. Then D-Day, Day 100, finally arrived. Still a little curious as to what would happen, I watched as The Devil's Basilisk was finalized via a cutscene. It awoke like the caper-crushing tool it was advertised to be. "Game Over", said the screen. All that work, the upgrades, it was all wiped away. I saw it coming so it didn't totally surprise me, but ten hours of effort were destroyed because of the game's casino-like intent on stacking the odds in its own favor from day one.

 The combined efforts of my ineptitude and the game's sadism. The combined efforts of my ineptitude and the game's sadism.

Though the game is inarguably either inherently flawed or joyously sadistic, it does still have bright spots. On the rare occasion my heists went as planned, dodging the robots, turning them onto each other, and making it back to my escape pod with sacks full of loot just as the police arrive was really fun. The visual style and music draw from each other perfectly too. The cartoonish steampunk world, full of bronze and brown, was fun to jump around in, even if I often landed on mines, enemies, or just flat on my face. Not a word is spoken in the game, aside from an occasional order from the robot police who arrive when alarms are tripped, and even these are hard to hear. Each character and location name is also randomized with names that fit the setting. Some characters were so short-lived I honestly never learned their name, but my favorite was one which borrowed from my own, Mark D. Watchmaker. He didn't survive, sadly. None of my characters did. The range of enemies was also constantly expanding. Every few levels introduced a new robot type with new behavior patterns, both when patrolling and when alerted.

There were also two annoyances I learned about the hard way. Trying to hack a mine while on a staircase always resulted in the device exploding, yet sometimes, because of the randomized level design and my current upgrades, hacking that mine would be the only way to advance. Another problem occured when the game was left in standby like Xbox One titles now allow. Coming back to it paused after a while, or after the Xbox was in sleep mode, resulted in the game failing to return to the level. I would then have to quit out, restart it, and lose however many days of progress I had made it through before what was, in essence, the game crashing.

Some robots need to see you, others just need to hear you.Some robots need to see you, others just need to hear you.

After day 100, resetting the timeline post-Game Over screen, I found the early levels only marginally easier. I now have familiarity, which is a weapon in itself, but familiarity pales in comparison to a quadruple jump or delaying the police response by several minutes which I have to earn all over again. My second playthrough is ongoing as I write this and I don't know if I'm any better off so far. I do plan to prioritize buying those bugs, but they take so long to afford, I might not be on any better of a pace than last time. This is my Groundhog Day, and I don't think I've yet figured out how to properly avoid Ned (Ryerson!) and that doozy of a puddle.

The achievements list is fittingly close-fisted when it comes to doling out gamerscore. A full 100 day playthrough resulting in failure can very easily net you a grand total of zero achievements unlocked. My playthrough would have done just that, but I went out of my way to pop a pair so I didn't seem totally inept. The full range of 15 possible unlocks range from simple only after you buy the corresponding upgrade to demanding you are really good, then suddenly bad, to you being really lucky. There is one achievement which, I had predicted, might never be unlocked. It seemed not unobtainable by measure of developer error, but rather such extreme levels of difficulty, requiring you to beat the game with your first thief. I lost over 60 in my playthrough. I can't fathom starting with my first impotent heistman or woman and making it to the final mission. Somehow, one person on TA has achieved this. He could be the last. This game should attract no fans of easy gamerscore, only those in the S&M community.


My time with The Swindle was littered with failure. I blame myself for plenty of those attempts, but the game roots against you in a way that's nearly unrivaled in the past two decades of video games. Not since the Wet Bandits attempted to invade the McCallister residence has burglary gone so laughably wrong. Yet still, it had its moments and surely there are those that will appreciate this sort of beating more than I did. Perhaps it hearkens back to a time when games didn't hold our hands as much, and if that's the case, perhaps I've been coddled by quick-time events and cutscenes that do the hard stuff for me. I don't believe that's the case, though. 2015 is my 20th year as a gamer and I have played few games that challenge your patience as much as The Swindle. Maybe the game's robots have achieved sentience and human-like emotions. That would explain all the menacing satisfaction they seem to derive out of my failure.
2.5 / 5
  • Lots of enemy variation
  • Unique visual style
  • Great music that fits the aesthetic
  • Leaves almost no room for error, ever
  • Enemy and map difficulty progresses without the player
  • Too many instances of impossible heists
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent 12 hours creeping on rooftops, hacking computers, whacking robots, but mostly just tripping alarms en route to earning just two of the game's stingy 15 achievements. A digital copy of this game was provided by the publisher for this review.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.