The Swindle

Rain falls on the cobbled streets and tiled rooftops. Because of course it is raining—even in this Victorian, cyberpunk version of London, you can’t escape the atrocious weather. Beneath the determined-yet-unhurried melody lies a sense of dangerous excitement. Tonight, in this little town, beneath the metal and non-functioning noses of the literal tin-pot robo-guards, I am prepared to make a big score.

The Swindle is about building up to the perfect heist. It’s a game about patience—about playing the long game—and yet every fibre seems to scream hurry. The context and stakes are established quickly: you have 100 days to prevent the activation of a new gadget that will comprehensively end crime, which just so happens to be your only line of work. Better roll up those sleeves and get to work, because this ain’t no welfare state.

It starts off small: steal little bundles of cash from the slums district (bury that remorse, it has no place here) until you can buy the hacking skill. Then, keep hacking computers and upgrading the crooks’ skills until victory. Simple, right? The Swindle is an elegantly crafted game—for someone other than me. I cannot contain the nervous energy; every mistake, every death, every lost haul results in a greater sense of urgency. I must hurry and steal more money; if I do not, all will be lost.

Even as I shout in frustration, cries of ‘no no no!’ and ‘oh, come on!’ echoing throughout my house, I am still captivated. I watch as Hester Deathkiller-Conley falls onto a spike and the haul—always more than I am happy to lose—erupts like a green geyser. A jump is timed wrong and the world lights up red, alarms sounding, and I panic—Eldon Worthington slips, misses the wall, and falls several storeys.

But I, like the crooks themselves, am always ready for another heist. Just one more—and this time, I’ll be more careful. Or so I say. As the days tick away, and as access to richer—and more difficult—districts is won, the types of enemies faced also begins to ramp up. Before long, those dinky little tin-pot robo-guards with an incredibly short line of sight are replaced with super-fast guards, or guards with noise sensors, guns, and incredible lines of sight. The little floating bucket drones get guns, and then are turned into floating electrical mines and thieving starts to seem like a really dangerous employment track.

But you persevere. Because the next mark might be the big break you need to get that upgrade. Maybe you need some bombs, to help clear passageways and eliminate pesky guards or infuriating spikes. Maybe you want access to security panels so you can turn off the searchlights that always seem to catch you at the last moment, alerting police-bots and earning you a beat down (or getting you riddled with airship bullets).

And you persevere because everything in The Swindle is inviting and straightforward. Starting a heist is quick; escaping in the pod after alerting the police is also quick—assuming the police don’t bash you first. Buying upgrades takes the briefest of moments, and then it’s back to scaling walls and breaking windows, snatching loot along the way. Inputs for hacking computers, mines, and other devices is simple, which keeps the focus on all the action happening around you; take too long with those inputs (or let the tense music distract you and cause an incorrect mine hack input), and you could end up caught or dead.

The Swindle is not immediately satisfying, but this seems to be a deliberate choice. The randomness of the level generation means that there’s every chance the first heist lacks the £100 needed to buy hacking—or the passages are blocked off and inaccessible—which can be a little deflating. But the constant, continual escalation is what keeps The Swindle gripping and satisfying—even when it feels unfair. Which is often, because I am terrible.

This review was originally published at Impulse Gamer.