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Swagman (PlayStation) artwork

Swagman (PlayStation) review

"What a strange combination. An E (everyone from the age of three upwards) rated game, only released in Europe on the PS1 and Saturn, that was developed by CORE as the game they made after the first Tomb Raider enjoyed such phenomenal success. It features eight year old twins who collect bugs (the insect kind), turn into monsters, and when they are not in monster form, try to defeat Scallywags using the doughty weapons of a torch and a yo-yo. They spend much of their time falling into the Abyss a..."

What a strange combination. An E (everyone from the age of three upwards) rated game, only released in Europe on the PS1 and Saturn, that was developed by CORE as the game they made after the first Tomb Raider enjoyed such phenomenal success. It features eight year old twins who collect bugs (the insect kind), turn into monsters, and when they are not in monster form, try to defeat Scallywags using the doughty weapons of a torch and a yo-yo. They spend much of their time falling into the Abyss and risking death from the touch of a zombie or troll. If they avoid those horrible fates they go exploring such delightful places as the Boneyard, Crypt and Limbo. Weird. Really weird.

The game begins with an excellent scene setting video. The town of Paradise Falls has a big problem. One night the Swagman captures the Dreamflight fairies and plunges the sleeping people into the world of nightmares. Hannah has been shrunk and confined in a cage, and Zack's bug collection has been scattered far and wide. Only her twin brother Zack, can save her. Then the two of them can begin their long journey together, through the Dark Tunnels beneath the Garage to find the Swagman's House. They have to traverse the Boneyard, the Twisty Turny Woods and the distorted world of the Upstairs and Garden and various other bizarre locations until they finally reach Limbo where they can free the Dreamflight fairies. Only when all 15 have been released will the twins escape the world of nightmares and restore peaceful sleep once again to Paradise Falls...Yes, since everyone else in their town is fast asleep, only Hannah and Zack can defeat the evil Swagman and get things back to normal.

This is the basis of the story, and you play using these eight year old twins, your wits, and not a lot else.

At the start you are given a key that you are told will summon the Scarab to your aid, and I thought that would be something that could be used whenever you got stuck. But it is not. You have to find a Scarab chest and the head bug will emerge and then give a cryptic hint. There are maybe two or at the most three of these chests in each level, so really not a lot of help there, especially given that most of the levels are insanely long. You also can find other Scarab chests where you can save your game, but one minor annoyance is that there is only one save file for the whole game, so you cannot go back to a level once it has been completed.

Every "real life" location such as house and garden and main street has the added problem of the dangerous Abyss. Everything once familiar has been fractured and distorted, and the broken bits of the landing and front room, for example, are scattered perilously above the Abyss. As well as spewing enemies forth, it is easy to miss a jump and fall. Then Zack and Hannah go swirling down to the depths, into the mouth of the waiting Swagman, with rather effective blood curdling screams. However all is not lost. If you press start within 10 seconds, you are saved from this dreadful fate and restored to the start of the section you are in. That is a nice feature given the infrequency of save points.

The game is basically a puzzle adventure and you negotiate long and complex dungeons fighting or avoiding enemies, and finding increasingly more complicated ways through to Limbo where you can rescue the Dreamflight fairies, or are they flies? I was never that sure. But anyway, they are the ones that have been trapped in the blue bug jars by the evil Swagman. Some of the puzzles are fiendishly hard, especially as there are so few hints given in the game itself, and you can spend hours trying to solve just one small puzzle. And then find that the solution is mind numbingly simple, but only, I suppose, once you know the answer. As indeed happened to me when I spend ages trying to find a way through a particular dungeon, only eventually to realise, after having tried bombs, (yes, cherry bombs are very useful to eight year olds trapped in a nightmare), running and jumping, standing on heads, and asking everyone I could think of for ideas, that ALL I had to do was to pull what appeared to be a very heavy and immovable...well, I won't let on exactly what it was.

Yes, both Hannah and Zack have the amazing skill of being able to push and pull things. The manual explains that this is for small chests. Well, that is a vast under-estimation of their strength. These eight year olds can move anything, large rocks, heavy metal fences, even a car, are like toys in their hands. Fortunately, the controls are simple to understand and operate. You can walk and run and jump and hit as well as pull things. And you can even stand on each others' head to help jump gaps and the like.

The basic idea is that the twins have to cooperate in order to solve the puzzles and progress. So, one may need to stand on a square platform which makes a path of stepping stones over a river of lava, while the other hops over the stones. You can swop between them with a single button press. However, the awkward thing is that often the result of the action of one twin cannot be seen on the same screen, and you have to switch to the other one and search around to find the effects. This adds to the fun, and the frustration.

Each level has a number different components including the puzzles, the enemies and hidden areas, and the change from the "real world" to the "dream world". You have to find a mirror and when you go through it as Zack or Hannah, you become a Dreambeast monster, and have different skills and no inventory based items or weapons. You also have to collect lots of bugs along the way and negotiate many obstacles before finally getting to Limbo. There, the bugs you have collected will form a path over unsteady blocks and you can reach the trapped fairy and release her from her confinement. If you have failed to get the required number of bugs, and we are talking some big numbers here: (sometimes you might need over a hundred, and many of them can only be found in secret places) then you face a difficult path, as the blocks will fall if you step on the wrong one. After all that, you may be transported to a boss fight. My favourite boss was the Undertaker: three coffins that each had an enemy that you could not attack directly. Figuring that one out took some time. Fortunately not all levels end with a boss which is something of a relief.

Although they begin the game with just a torch for a weapon, and can find and use bombs, the twins will gain more weapons as they find things that the Swagman had hidden. These include sneakers, a frisbee and other childish toys. To use these extra items they share a "dew bar". Nothing to do with alcohol I can assure you. They collect blue liquid called Dreamdew, from flowers and spiders webs, and when the bar is full they can use special skills. The bar depletes very quickly and has to be refilled at another flower, and these skills are essential to progress. In the Boneyard, for example, Zack has to use his "sneakers" with a full dew bar in order to make a long running jump over a gap. He then has to do two more similar jumps after Hannah has found a key to a gate that he can then use. But he needs more dew and there is no dewflower to be seen anywhere. This took me days to work out. Eventually I discovered that some graves had hidden depths. Okay there were lots of zombies waiting to destroy Zack with a one touch kill, but there were also flowers where I could fill up on dew and so complete the jumps.

Graphics are colourful and quite suitable for the style of game. Some of the locations are very imaginative, such as the distorted hallway that has been broken into bright red and orange islands hovering above the swirling red purple and black Abyss. When the twins become monsters, Hannah is a fetching shade of green with bright blue hair and Zack red. One slightly odd thing is the camera angle which has a top down fixed view but actually is fine once you get used to it. The two dimensional nature of the graphics, and the angle of view sometimes mean that it is hard to tell, for example, that a wall is high, as you are looking down onto the top of it and can think it is just another bit of road. This can also effect some of the puzzles, especially when jumping, but the characters cast a helpful shadow so this can compensate for the lack of angle definition. Enter the playroom and this top down angle is cleverly exploited when the snooker cues comes crashing down on you from a height, magnified and trying to pop you.

The music is excellent throughout. Eerie and creepy piano and orchestral instruments combine to create a spooky atmosphere and keep you on edge. There is a lovely piece involving a harp and the deeper wind instruments which I really enjoyed listening to. There is an almost comic quality to it, such that I felt the developers were laughing at me as I attempted jumping into space to find an invisible platform for the umpteenth time. The tricky puzzles, and hard jumping challenges can take so long to get right that you will be hearing the music a lot, so it is just as well that it is so good. Other sounds effects are..well, pretty effective: I already mentioned the blood curdling screams...which you will also hear many, many times.

Although I did not expect much from the game when I started playing, I got drawn in by the oddness of bug collecting, the bizarre locations, and solving increasingly difficult puzzles. After falling more times than I care to mention, knowing the delights of near death in the Abyss and the roar of the hordes of zombies as they staggered closer and closer...I can safely say that, although weird, and often frustrating, the game is a lot of fun. Though not, I would imagine, for three year olds.

threetimes's avatar
Community review by threetimes (February 11, 2009)

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