The Unfinished Swan is a touching and charming story that, defying most video game conventions, manages to be told in a simply fashion, but also extremely well. As a game, this almost entirely narrative driven experience is perfect for children of all ages, but its biggest strength is also its weakness. Entirely faultless in its construction and presentation, the player is always left with a sense of longing.
Many people will have been lead to believe that the game is just about using paint splatters to feel your way through a fantasy landscape. In fact this new and interesting play mechanic is just one of several presented to you as you progress.
The game tells the story of a young boy who has lost his mother and escapes into a dream world to deal with his loss. Other PlayStation Network titles have had similar emotional backdrops, but unlike Papo & Yo or Journey, The Unfinished Swan is entirely free of the emotional weight. This is a children’s story told effectively and imaginatively via its layers of simple and imaginative play.
If there is one thing that The Unfinished Swan does effectively, it’s allowing this sense of play. Each stage is filled with a simple idea that is quickly built upon until every experience feels new and exciting. The first chapter starts with the well signposted paint-splatter mechanic. The paint helps to show paths and landscapes through the visually featureless world, creating a strange sensation of what it must feel to be blind. Reaching out for anything around you, placing yourself, and slowly advancing when you know where you are.
This feature is oddly fleeting though and the next moment sees you progressing through a landscape that is ever more obvious. Even to the point of removing the requirement to use the paint at all. The next stage might swap paint for water, used to encourage plants to grow and creep along walls. Other times the throwing mechanic might be used instead to strike objects and create reactions, like lighting the way forward through the pitch-black night.
Each and every moment is an entirely new and fresh twist, despite being based on the first person paint throwing mechanic. One quite inventive use even involves creating new platforms and blocks wherever you choose, in order to create a path onwards.
The big issue here though is not that any of these ideas are bad, boring or ugly; it’s that they are gone all too quickly. As is the game as a whole. It’s likely that anyone playing will clock up just two hours playtime before the credits “roll”. When you take into account that one of the four chapters in the games story is actually an end credit sequence (albeit a brilliant story featuring a surprise guest voice actor), you can see how the game can be quite short.
It’s this lack of length or contextual mass that will constantly leave you feeling short changed. There’s also a feeling that, while there’s a nice range of ideas on show here, there’s very little actual interaction or exploration on show.
Little risk too since the narrative path is tightly scripted and easily followed with few problems, so at no point are you going to see a Game Over or stage restart screen. If you were to compare this game to anything it would be Dear Esther. You might even say that it’s very much the same style narrative. Walk some way, see something beautiful, hit the narrative beat, and repeat
Ultimately youll find yourself wishing that the ideas on show and the story being told were both twice as long. As it stands now, The Unfinished Swan feels like a tasty pudding dish of a game. Costing more than it should, tasting and looking lovely while it lasts, but nowhere near enough to be classed as a filling meal.