Ever since I bought DeathSpank from the PSN store last year, the name ‘Hothead Games’ became one of my benchmarks for fun, not-so-serious downloadable games. While we at PlaystationUni never got to review Deathspank’s follow-up, Thongs of Virtue, the announcement of Hothead Games’ latest PSN title, Swarm, had us quite excited.
The Swarm has crash-landed on a dark and mysterious, war-torn planet. The blue blob ‘ship’ sends out a single, worm-like tentacle and spews forth a group of 50 Swarmites. This is you. Your goal? Collect DNA from throughout the planet and feed it back to the host blob, affectionately known to the Swarmites, as “Momma”.
In typical Hothead Games fashion, the idea is to not take Swarm too seriously.
Getting through Swarm’s many levels, you’ll encounter a multitude of environmental hazards. Swarmites can be impaled, fried, asphyxiated, electrocuted, diced into tiny pieces and they can fall into pools of lava or bottomless pits.
Normally, you’d think this would be counter-productive. Besides collecting the DNA strands (oftentimes well hidden) throughout the levels, you also encounter numerous – sometimes hundreds – of molecules, which add to your level score and contribute to a score multiplier. Keeping this score multiplier going however, is the tricky part. And one of the easiest ways to keep it going, when you’ve run out of molecules, is to send your Swarmites to the slaughter.
Each death not only prolongs the perpetuation of the multiplier, but it also marginally increases it.
Levels have a minimum score in order to pass onto the next level. So managing (and increasing) that multiplier is paramount. And it can be extremely challenging as the game progresses. Many times I’d find myself failing the minimum score requirement to unlock the next level.
The controls themselves do take quite a bit of getting used to. There are two main swarm controls; Forcing them to spread out, or pulling them into a tight huddle, both especially useful depending on your environmental circumstances. Additionally, from the huddle, Swarmites can then stack themselves vertically in a treacherously balanced column, serving both to reach higher pickups or platforms and also to navigate through very narrow areas.
Furthermore, ‘charging’ the swarm can spur them into quicker sprint movements and an additional control can jettison them into a powerful direct impact attack that destroys walls and sets off pressure pads.
Some levels introduce a carrying mechanic, where your Swarmites carry a glow worm sort of creature, illuminating dark (often pitch-black) areas, but frustratingly these sections can become incredibly annoying if you happen to lose your light-bearing friends.
Getting your mind around the controls, as well as learning to manage the entire pack of 50 Swarmites on screen (especially when the scenes become chaotic, full of explosions and other environmental hazards) takes some adjustment. It’s quite different to anything you’re used to, but once to get a grasp of the feel, it’s all smooth sailing from there.
Swarm definitely promotes replay. In addition to global leaderboards, after completing a level for the first time, you unlock an additional ‘Time bonus’ which awards you a further multiplier at the conclusion of a level depending on how quickly you’ve completed it. Competing for the top spot on the wall is going to take some serious Swarmite management and exceptional care of the multiplier.
Hothead Games’ Swarm is a fun and enjoyable experience, marred only by some occasional spikes in difficulty (boss battles especially) which really test your patience. And what feels like a little bit of monotony towards later levels as the novelty of the presentation, macabre humour, innovative control and ideas start to wear thin. That said, it’s still a colourful and twisted bit of fun.