6.0 Overall Score

Written by on May 25, 2011 in

Hothead Games, the creators of quirky worlds of the Penny Arcade Adventures and DeathSpank, transport us to a new and desolate world filled with all things dangerous and deadly.  The folks at Hothead have been working on this as a concept from the company’s inception in 2006.  The project began as a PhD research project on artificial intelligence by Doctor Mike Hayward.  The idea was a simple one.  Take a typical below average minion, on his own he can’t accomplish anything of importance.  Left to his own devices each individual bug-eyed pudgy blue underling is utterly useless as he wanders aimlessly around the perilous world.  His curiosity inevitably leads to injury or death. This point is brought to the forefront on the start screen.  A single swarmite steps onto the screen.  He is blissfully oblivious to the dangers awaiting him.  A subtle option appears in the lower right hand of the screen and warns the player ‘Do Not Press’.  As we all know warnings such as this were meant to be ignored.  To be more precise… a warning such as this is like waving a red flag to a gamer and I promptly pressed that fateful button.  The roly-poly minion looks around ignorant of the giant saw-blade that neatly slices him in two.  Blue goo splatters and drips down the screen as the next swarmite takes his place onscreen.  The player can continue to kill the creatures in various vicious ways. One blue buddy after the other will get gassed, blown up, sliced, diced, and skewered.

The twist to this tale is the intriguing possibilities that open up when up to fifty of these little critters work together.  All of a sudden these incompetent idiots can accomplish some amazing things.  They can push each other to gain an incredible burst of speed.  They can climb up on top of each other to reach extremely high objects.  They can use their combined strength to bust open formidable enclosures.  It is the amazingly complex power of the swarm.  This is not a completely new concept for a video game.  Several games such as Lemmings, Pikmin, and Overlord have introduced the notion of leading a group of minions to accomplish various tasks.  The difference in this game is that the player controls all of the minions simultaneously.  The player uses the mass character controls to spread them out, huddle them closely together, and otherwise boost, bash, stack and jump around the forbidding landscape.

The premise of the game is very simple.  A greedy and determined Momma Pod crashes onto an alien and insanely dangerous world reaching her long tentacle out and spewing out her tiny blue swarmites.  She leaves them to fight their way through the level demanding the collection of DNA with hearty, if odd, battle cries like “Get Some Fez”.  The goal of each level is to reach a minimum point score to unlock the next level.

This action platformer is not as easy as it sounds.  The trick is to build and keep a point multiplier.  There are several ways to do this.  There is a time multiplier which rewards players for navigating a level at a quicker pace.  This multiplier slowly reduces down to zero the longer the player takes to complete the level.  The player can build a point multiplier by consistently gaining points by gathering precious DNA for Momma Pod.  If DNA is scarce then the player can sacrifice some pudgy swarmites.  Yes this game rewards and even celebrates creative death and destruction.  The game’s designers reward acts of mass annihilation with aptly named “death medals” and a constantly updated global counter totaling all swarmite deaths over every platform is front page news on their website.

I have to admit that this helped make some of my more feeble attempts more entertaining when I gained a gold death medal for asphyxiating, trapping, impaling, or electrocuting countless minions.  There is a strategy involved in maintaining the delicate balance between each of these methods for scoring a high score.  I found myself trying to race through incredibly difficult areas to gain a better time bonus and avoid losing the high multiplier I had gained in a previous area.  Some other times I would wait for the multiplier timer to run out to secure a large number of points.  The point multiplier is safe as long as at least one swarmite survives. Running your swarm over blue blobs placed at several locations on each level will replenish the swarm’s numbers.  The trick is to get at least one swarmite to the next blob.  The player earns points and increases the point multiplier as long as they continue to pick up DNA or strategically sacrifice swarmites.  If the player is not able to gain points for a certain amount of time the multiplier stops and any boosts any points earned for that section of the game.  If you lose all of your swarmites you must start again from the closest check point and lose all the points earned from that section of the game and the multiplier starts over again.

My frustration peaked every time I gained multiplier over 25x only to fall victim to tragic circumstance.  Losing every last swarmite along with the hard won multiplier was the cause for several anguished cries and many unpleasant expletives.  This is a true old school platformer that will challenge the hardcore gamer and anger those of lesser skill.  The skills one needs to execute special swarm moves like a speed boost, jumping as a unit, huddling, spreading out, climbing on each other to create a column, throwing bombs, or busting open boxes are taught using informative giant billboards at key points in each level.  The graphics are very well done and very helpful.  Most levels are a barely contained frenzy where I used my swarm’s skills at a crazy pace as I attempted to control the chaos.  There is no rest for the wicked and this game proves it.  I found myself laughing wildly even as I cursed my bad luck.

Players must rely on skill, strategy, and a bit of outright luck to successfully get at least one swarmite to the end of each level.  There are also several lit up pads that reward players for running over them with a minimum number of swarmites.  They may force you to backtrack through the level to grab bonus DNA or challenge you to grab them using challenging techniques (long leaps or high jumps).  This game is definitely geared towards the ultra-competitive gamer.  The levels are extremely challenging and there is a major focus on leaderboards which encourages fierce competition between friends.  Each level is filled with extreme danger in many forms.  There is fire, electricity, gas, traps, saws, lasers, explosions, strange beasties and even a couple boss battles.  There is even a level of complete darkness that forces the players to carry a lightning bug to help find their way.

I do love Hothead’s quirky humor and the premise for this game is very interesting.  The death medal rewards allowed me to enjoy my less than stellar performances and the graphics are really well done.  They use the same stylistic action comic design found in the DeathSpank series.  The only hardship for me is the lack of any difficulty settings to allow the lesser skilled to enjoy later levels of the game.  The game is adrenaline-inducing frantic fun and does provide a lot of entertaining moments but I would appreciate a little forgiveness on the score requirements needed to unlock later levels.  There are only so many times I want to play the same exact level before I want to move on.  I have to admit that the high degree of difficulty did have me doing my happy dance after the successful completion of a level.  Sadly I did not dance as often as I would have liked.

A copy of Swarm was provided to The Married Gamers for review and evaluation.


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Author: Melisa Snyder View all posts by

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