The Unfinished Swan is one of those games that’s difficult to explain. I’d love to tell you about all the wonders you’ll see, and the fun you’ll have playing with the clever ways it twists its core mechanic of splattering paint against a canvas world, but to say too much would be ruining it. Exploring the lands of The King is an adventure best left a surprise.
You play as Monroe, an orphan whose sole remembrance of his mother is an unfinished painting of a swan. One night, the neckless swan comes to life and escapes through a magical door that appears in the corner of your bedroom. You follow the bird through, soon finding yourself in a garden devoid of color, armed with nothing but a supply of black paint. It’s simple enough beginning to what, in the end, is a simple enough story.
As you trail your mother’s creation, you’ll pass through statuaries, cities, and forests, all the while learning of their mysterious creator, The King, an oddly likable tyrant with a bad habit of putting his own selfish whimsy before the needs of his kingdom. Discovering the history behind the strange lands you explore is a fulfilling reward for passing checkpoints in each chapter, and feels just as much an accomplishment as finally opening a gate or catching sight of the elusive swan that always seems just a few steps ahead of you.
The story, though sparse, plays a perfect parallel to the world you’re exploring, a delightful mix of the seen and unseen, giving you just enough to ignite your imagination without ever attempting to define it in full. You’ll come to be fascinated by the King’s legacy as each chapter of the tale unfolds into the environment around you. Each area is an exercise in basic platforming, littered with puzzles of perception. What starts as a quest to simply discover where the next bridge or ladder is located soon evolves into more complex considerations that somehow never manage to break the game’s simple two-action experience: moving and splattering.
Sometimes you’ll wander into a more typical puzzle, such as spinning a crane into position, or figuring out which lever opens a doorway but, for the most part, the challenge of Swan is built straight into whichever facet of its ball-flinging mechanic you’re currently exploring. Often, puzzles are simple, and more “can you do it?” than “how do you do it?” There’s never a doubt that you’ll make it through to the game in one piece – and without much difficulty – but it doesn’t take long to realize that’s just not the point. There’s no ammo, health bar, bosses, lives, or continues to manage, but while the approach is minimalistic, its formula changes just often enough to captivate you without break, never letting a single methodology overstay its welcome.
Unfortunately, this commitment to perfect pacing makes the experience an extremely short one. But while you’ll likely be saddened by the prospect of goodbye, the game does a wonderful job at easing you into your departure by journey’s end, rewarding your adventures with a sense of both narrative and mechanical success. If you’d prefer not to let go, there’s some replay value found in Swan’s addictive collectable hunting, but jumping back into The King’s world so soon after leaving can quickly sap the magic out of what was designed as a precision experience.
Though your time with Swan is limited, and though you’ll likely never find the charm of that first playthrough again, neither should deter you from enjoying the beauty of what’s present. The Unfinished Swan is brilliant in its ability to work a solitary theme into a multifaceted journey without wasting a moment of your time on dull repetition. And even more importantly, it’s a journey worth taking; just don’t let anyone spoil you what’s in store before you begin.
Bottom Line: A must-play for any PlayStation owner, The Unfinished Swan is a short but brilliant exercise in broadening perception, and utilizing simplicity.
Recommendation: If you’re looking for emotionally-stirring, minimalistic experiences the likes of Journey and Flower, you’d regret not diving into The Unfinished Swan the moment you can.[rating=5]
Game: The Unfinished Swan
Developer: Giant Sparrow
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment