REVIEW: The Unfinished Swan (PS3)

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Reminiscent of the kiddie lit classic “Harold and the People Crayon,” “The Unfinished Swan” begins with the delicately phrased story of Monroe, a young boy pulled into a strange adventure. His mother was an artist who never completed her works, creating a collection of unfinished paintings. After her death, Monroe awakens to find himself beckoned through a mysterious doorway by the object of his mother’s favorite painting, a swan.

At that moment, the player takes over, presented with an entirely white screen. The only indicator that the game hasn’t locked up is a centered circular reticle commonly found in first-person shooter games. And in fact, PlayStation Network exclusive “The Unfinished Swan” is a first-person shooter in design. However, “first-person shooter” is merely an ingredient. Like “Portal” before it, “Swan” uses the visual language of first-person video games to form something entirely different.

The white screen that begins Monroe’s adventure is actually a fully constructed environment of bamboo trees and rocky paths. But as it is colored all white, you can’t see it until you start throwing around globs of black paint. In this way, you lead Monroe through a garden, slowly revealing the story of a magically artistic King attempting to satisfy both his subjects and his internal muse.

You may think that splat mechanic is what defines “The Unfinished Swan,” flinging balls of paint onto empty fields to expose the hidden landscapes. After a few levels of splattering black paint, the scene shifts to visible walls with stark shadows, and you instead throw drops of light blue water. To the game’s credit, it evolves from style to style as quickly as an artist changing brushes. There’s never a chance to get tired of one scheme, as painting changes into growing vines, and managing light sources changes into sculpting boxes out of thin air.

Naturally, if any one of these resonates with you, you’ll wish the game spent more time with it. And absolutely “The Unfinished Swan” clocks in at a tepid running time. However, what’s clear is that “Swan” is dead-set to keep these mechanics from overstaying their welcome. There’s a certain confidence in a game that dedicates maybe half an hour to any given style, and then moves on to the next bit. If you’re concerned about time value for that money investment, however, that confidence won’t mean much.

“The Unfinished Swan,” in short, wants to be finished. The King’s story, threaded throughout the game, is meant to be told in its entirety (aside: the King is unexpectedly voiced by famed director and ex-Python Terry Gilliam.) The various game styles are meant to be explored and completed. The game’s creators want you to see all their thoughts and design decisions. There is no room for the player to grow fatigued, and that both helps and hinders the game’s reputation.

It’s easy to be disappointed when a game comes up short, but “Swan” has such a solid focus that you can’t not enjoy it. The world looks fantastic, the writing is clever, and the surprises are delightful. The experience may be brief, but it is definitely worthwhile.

Image courtesy Sony Computer Entertainment America. This review is based on product supplied by the publisher.

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