There are over 175 rogue-like games on Steam alone, about the same number or more of stealth genre games. When I think of rogue-like games, I think of dungeon crawlers, endless labyrinths, and the stream of New Game menu selections thanks to permanently dying. When I think of stealth games, I think of hiding in a shadow or corner, flossing, combing my hair or playing a mobile game while I wait for a guard to walk by so I can judo chop him and move on.
I leaned into my chair and installed The Swindle. The next thing I remember was waking up on the floor, my pockets were inside out, my shirt was unbuttoned, my hair was a mess, and worse, 20 hours of my life had been stolen from me. I would have never have thought to combine these two great genres into one. Size Five Games has successfully accomplished this, and the result is greater than the two parts.
I have 100 days to steal a device called “The Devil’s Basilisk,” an artificial intelligence developed by Scotland Yard. This device will effectively monitor “everything” shutting down all criminal activity for good. My career as a master burglar will be effectively terminated if this happens.
You begin with your first thief in a fancy airship with another vessel standing by to take you to your first heist. These heists will bring in the cash needed to fund your crime empire. Towards the left is a workshop table that allows you view your criminal network’s skill tree. Unlike a typical RPG system, The Swindle lays out its improvements in unique categories, skills that directly affect movement, weapons to deploy on the level or at enemies, “goggle” vision enhancements and improvements to your airship.
Your first heist takes place in the bowels of the slums. The Swindle is set in an alternate timeline of 1849. There’s no Queen Victoria, David Copperfield on book stands or citizens mourning the loss of the Bishop of Norwich. Instead, Size Five’s steam powered recreation of England takes center stage. This motif coats every pixel of every frame; the heavy industrial backdrop and bleak distant city structures set the tone. Your criminal venues are deadly mazes, populated by clanking robots, propeller-powered flashlight drones, lethal pitfalls, and more.
Arriving at my first location I set out to change my £0 bank account status.
I pushed the door open at the first housing establishment. The joint was littered with slow pacing guards, patrolling throughout the corridors. An illuminated cone of vision stretches out a few feet in front of the direction they are facing, showing what they can see. Care is needed when navigating, once the alarm is tripped there is no turning back from the consequences. Creeping up on the nearest Roboguard, I introduced its blindside to my cudgel. Down to the ground it went with a dull thump. Gears and small whiffs of smoke marked his demise.
Continuing on to the next room, I spot the first computer. I was alerted by a tutorial message that I needed the “hacking skill” to break into the device. My first playthrough I was unaware that these terminals are your bread and butter when it comes to securing cash. I was also unaware of the importance of the “bugs” gadget.
To spare you some trouble let me just give you this advice: hunt through your first house as best you can and as soon as you have £100 head back to the airship and upgrade hacking. Initial heist locations may have £80-120 lying around, but computers hold £3,o00-£4,000. In later missions they payout even higher, depending on your upgrades. The Swindle rewards you for completely clearing out a location. If you do it without setting off the alarm, the Ghost bonus payout is generous.
Once I had my hacking skills down I was able to make some actual dough. The game’s locations are procedurally generated. No two levels are the same. I have attempted about seven playthroughs of The Swindle. Each time has been a unique experience. You will never know where the computers, security terminals, and cash will be without upgrades. What will be guarding them? Will this hallway lead to the leftmost computer? One of The Swindle’s biggest weaknesses lies in the confusing and illogical and sometimes impossible layouts that can randomly occur.
In subsequent playthroughs, I realized that managing each heist to ensure maximum profitability from day 100 to day 1 is the key to reaching the Basilisk. Staying ahead of the curve is essential. Knowing which upgrade to buy first, second, and third really matters. Dying can slow your progress and a long string of deaths can make the end game that much harder. Keeping your thief alive is key to increasing a high multiplier and snowballing your cash flow. Sadly, the procedural generation becomes a major obstacle in your path; it’s like fighting a five headed hydra with a half melted Jell-O pudding pop. I’ve seen doors in rooms by themselves, 20 enemies guarding nothing, all three computers behind 8 layers of wall that you cannot get through without bombs, which is impossible to afford 6 days into the campaign.
Regardless of the frustration, I could not stop playing The Swindle. Hours seemed to disappear in seconds. Was it daytime still? What day was it again? The soundtrack of this game is catchy, steam hisses, metal clanks, and clock ticks are the percussion accompaniment that perfectly transforms your state of mind into cat burglar mode. It motivated me to keep going. Trip an alarm and the soundtrack revs up instantly with a forceful shout. I actually found my heart racing as I tried to make it out of a residence. While you are still able to make off with the goods if detected, linger too long and within minutes the real Robocops arrive and they are impossible to take down. You may be lucky enough to dodge a few. But before you can handle them all a flying saucer Megacop will come, take out his gatling gun, and leave you full of holes and in a pile of floating bills.
So many times I would get frustrated with this game, but I came back to it. I needed to see more, that stylized art direction, the wonderful background music, and the ever changing array of enemies tugged at my curiosity like a cane pulling a bad actor off of a vaudeville stage. But the string of deaths were mounting and I also wanted to give up. I almost walked away. That’s when I met him. The dark renegade thief, Harland O. Underwhelmer-Gaugeson.
Once I met Harland, the planets aligned, the moon stood still, it was him. The Promised One! I had met my long lost and much darker twin. He had a billy club. Dynamite. And a ‘fro. This is the thief destined in some great prophecy I just made up, the rogue-hero that would lead the way to the Basilisk. I would guide him and he would make us both filthy rich.
Harland and I had many grand adventures. We pilfered huge payouts from over seven computers within a matter of two heists. Money began to stack up, just what I needed. It was our third day together, I was feeling so good about my criminal empire, I decided to wear my grandest corduroy trousers. Harland had managed to infiltrate two more computers, we had almost explored the entire location. I saw three more piles of cash in the last hallway, guarded by spikes and a door. Harland jumped over the spikes and grabbed the cash and we were heading back. That’s when the sinking feeling in my innards began. There was a serious problem ahead.
The jump down was too high for Harland to get out of; maybe if I had invested cash into triple jumping he wouldn’t have been in this dire predicament. Sweat beaded on my forehead. Harland looked at me. I looked at him. One bomb left.
Since he was on the job I called his old lady, Mrs. Underwhelmer-Gaugeson, I started to console her “Everything will be alright Missus G., Harland knows what he’s doing, he’s a professional, this is his fourth job, he’s a pro.” As she nervously whimpered on the phone I watched as Harland climbed up a wall and began fastening his dynamite pack to the wall. Maybe by blowing a ledge on the side of his room, Harland could scamper back to safety. The bomb was set. “Everything…will..be..okay…wait…” my speech slowed.
Harland was stuck. Move Harland, come on man. He hopped down, but was still too close to the ledge. Harland looked at me. I looked at him. Too close damn it. There was no where to hide, get out of there Harland! DAMN YOU HARLAND DON’T DIE!!
Cloud of cash.
“Hello? Hello? Hello? Harland Ok? Did he make it? Is he okay?! ANSWER ME!” she cried out.
“OH NO!! MY BAYBAY!!!! AWWW NOOOOO”
It was done. I was finished. There was no point to life after Harland. After polishing off one whiskey shot after another and pouring one on the floor in Harland’s memory, I sat at my desk in shock. I was an absolute mess. I stared into space, numb, angry, and bewildered for fifteen entire seconds. My grand corduroy trousers had lost their luster. I just couldn’t do it without Harland, he was the best I ever worked with.
15 seconds later, I snapped out of it. Had to get to the Casino stage. Sorry Harland, R.I.P.
Silly moments like this spurred me. I felt a connection to the randomly generated characters and their unusual names. I began to take a vested interest in their survival. Keeping them safe, managing purchases, planting bugs, all essential to handling the middle and endstages of The Swindle, which are absolutely ludicrous in difficulty, charming in presentation, and the ultimate test of your abilities. Mastering the fundamentals and watching the game open up is very satisfying.
This game captivated and frustrated me, but overall kept me engaged and firmly planted at my desk while the clock ticked away the hours. It would have been nice if there were a few changes that would help the learning curve. Holding back traps and certain enemies until you had the tools to reach the terminals on every mission. A more refined touch to the level generation to prevent insane locations that only Harry Houdini in a M1 Abrams could get by. But these are minor flaws compared to the excellence of the game itself and the only issues keeping me from rating The Swindle a perfect 10. The steampunk setting, the driving music, the clever enemies, the roguelike aspects mixed with adventure and stealth, the management of resources, and the attachment you will have with your thieves are blended together with an expert’s touch. It is a masterful stroke of game design and production to meld these genres together and throw it at gamers to make of it as they see fit. Developer Size Five Games has a gem on their hands (that I may try to steal in the next 100-1 days).Steam GoG Size Five Games