Playing Swarm is like trying to direct a large group of adorable blue idiots through the apocalypse. While that might sound like a chore, it also happens to be one of the more exhilarating, visceral arcade experiences I’ve had in recent memory.
Swarm is a game obsessed with the bigger picture: as long as one swarmite survives, the game marches on. Traversing the homicidal planet on which Swarm takes place, the bumbling blue aliens are bludgeoned, eviscerated, skewered, you name it. And their deaths are on your hands. The creatures appear innocent enough, and Swarm wastes no time inflicting a bit of empathy on the player. Thousands of swarmites will die, but the game makes it painfully clear that you have to soldier on, and that casualties are a necessary evil for the greater good.
Wrapping your brain around the ‘one life versus many’ dynamic is essential to success. Piloting a mob of extraterrestrial blue dimwits is pretty damn satisfying, and if you’re overly cute trying to save every damn swarmite you’re never going to succeed – or enjoy yourself. It’s imperative to remain in motion, and although it’s wise to exercise caution as you direct the mob through chicanes and mine fields, the pedal must remain to the metal. In order to progress in Swarm it’s not enough just to survive, you also have to survive with style, and do it quickly.
There are no set time limits in Swarm, but there is a minimum score necessary to move on. Collecting energy throughout the stages scores the hoard points and builds multipliers, which begin to deteriorate when the group isn’t actively engaged collecting points or killing itself – we’ll come back to that one. Keeping the multiplier up and adding to it is the only way to accrue high enough scores to succeed, and to do that, some caution has to be thrown into the wind. The result is a mad dash from one end of the stage to another, hitting as many of the notes along the way as possible to build and retain your score multiplier. And the rush you feel after a ‘perfect run’, retaining a combo throughout the length of the stage, is sublime, reminiscent of that feeling playing the early Tony Hawk games.
Of course, just like those days spent with the Hawkster, the tiniest misstep can ruin your run in the blink of an eye, as your see your entire swarm suffer an unexpected, tragic death. It will be maddening, it will be infuriating, and occasionally, it will flat out devastate, but you won’t give up. At this point Swarm has its hooks in you; you care. No matter how many times it takes, or how insurmountable the point differential between your last run and the goal remains, you’re going to keep playing. You have to.
Their pain is your pain. You’ve felt each of their deaths personally, and along the way you’ve grown accustomed, almost fond of how your hoard behaves. You can contract them and expand them at will. Jumping, dashing and ramming together, manipulating your new family feels awkward, but strangely right. While they might appear stupid, they’re exactly that, family; you’ll learn to accept their quirks and nuances, because you need them, just as much as they need you.
Sometimes the unfortunate truth is love hurts, and Swarm isn’t any different. In the interest of saving your multiplier, it might be necessary to sacrifice one of your brothers or sisters. In a sick twist, the untimely death of one swarmite resets the multiplier’s countdown, affording you valuable seconds to reach the next checkpoint or score bubble. Leading one of your comrades off a cliff or through a buzz saw is never pretty, but it reinforces the notion that each and every swarmite is a pawn: totally disposable, and yet, essential. All 50 swarmites expire and you’re dead, creating a delicate balancing act.
Having the power to determine the fate of your crew is empowering, but there are rare occasions when that decision is stripped from you; this is where Swarm falters. Small random traps are a natural occurrence and they keep you aware of your surroundings, thinning out your group. But occasionally, the planet strikes out violently and you have no way to protect your loved ones. Lightning bolts reign down, electrocuting your brethren, and for the very first time on this hellish rock, you’ve finally lost control.
The swarmites are your people and you want to protect them. Maybe they’re dumb, but spend some quality time with them though, and you’ll find a lot to love, once you’ve come to cherish their eccentricities and predicament. Like any family they’re a chore, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.