What's It All About:
Lemmings was a seriously fun game, wasn't it? Well, Swarm, from the folks behind DeathSpank and the Penny Arcade game Precipice of Darkness, can be just as much fun, but features a far simpler concept with a slightly harder challenge. And unlike Lemmings, where your goal was to save those stupidly suicidal creatures, Swarm rewards, nay, insists you to kill the Swarmites, a gaggle of blue blobs with Cookie Monster eyes you're given control of. Well, at least some of them. You'll still need to get a few of your charges through an assortment of deadly, chaotic stages, collect goodies and cross the finish line, in order to achieve a set scoring mark and move on to the next level. There's a sort of story in there too, about the giant blue "Momma" and some bad guys, but it's mostly about killing and collecting. At least when the game doesn't freeze, which is did often for me, though only on the level select screen, thankfully never during play, and never during the main menu, which offers the delightful opportunity to slaughter Swarmites up close and personally.
Blending puzzles and platforming, Swarm hands you the keys to a group of 50 Swarmites, who will head in whatever direction you guide them, with a few tricks in their pocket. You can spread them out to grab items, bunch them up to make movement easier, stack up to reach higher and rush forward to attack and destroy. Unfortunately they aren't too bright though, and the lands they need to navigate are tightly packed with hazards, which leads to plenty of deaths, from a number of causes, especially falls over cliffs. The thing is, you need to kill your boys if you want to beat the game. That's because you need to achieve a relatively high point total for each level to advance, and the only way to do that is to collect items spread out throughout the levels and maintain a high multiplier, which is based on collecting items frequently, or killing off some of your Swarmites before your multiplier timer runs out. There are plenty of respawn nests available to replenish your gang, so it's rarely an issue of running out, but you never want to dip to low before special triggers set to your number of Swarmites, as that just makes your life harder.
Completing each level is rarely an issue, but to complete it with enough points is another story. You practically have to play levels perfectly to achieve a high enough multiplier to satisfy the level's demands, and there's nothing more frustrating than having a massive multiplier running, only to lose everything by toppling into the void or getting caught in an explosion. Sure, you'll start at the last checkpoint, but you have almost no chance of beating the level as there's rarely enough time left to build up your multiplier and the resulting score. It would have been helpful to more casual players to allow you to progress by beating levels, and get special achievements or in-game unlockables by reaching certain scores. As it is, some gamers who get stuck on one section because of an arbitrary goal will grow frustrated too quickly. Others will simply feel their addiction grow.
In addition to the platforming/puzzle action, there are a pair of boss battles, which challenge the skills you've honed in the platforming, but with quicker, more direct challenged. These are only accessible once you collect a set number of DNA items, which aren't necessarily hidden, but are distributed around the levels, five per. They aren't the easiest items to find (normally reachable by stacking your Swarmites) but they shouldn't keep anyone from a boss fight. What's good is you can make multiple passes through a level, so one time you can go through looking for the DNA, then go back through trying to reach your goal score. If only that kind of flexibility had been applied to the level progression as a whole, parts of the game wouldn't have felt like an exercise in memorization and repetition (basically the only way to beat some sections.)
The only online play included is in the leaderboards, where you can pit your scores against other blob murderers.
For the most part, the controls are loose, but useful, as you navigate your crew through tight spaces with your left stick, and make them respond to special commands via your triggers and two face buttons. Sometimes, in the heat of play, it can be a pain to get those commands to work, particularly the stack and the stack rush, but it you slow down a second, they work fine. Perhaps this is appropriate, as it's unlikely these brainless blobs would be very responsive.
There are 12 X-Box 360 achievements up for grab, totaling 200. While some are your standard milestone achievements, like beating bosses or collecting all of a certain item, there are also rewards for repeat play and certain "high score" accomplishments. In addition to the achievements, there's in-game motivation for repeated play, as you can earn 45 death medals (cute name) for killing off your Swarmites in a variety of ways and in mass quantities. It's always appreciated when a game gives you a quantifiable reason to give it another go.
Swarm looks terrific, with highly-detailed settings and lots of impressive visual effects and deep backgrounds, while the animations on the Swarmites and their many ways to die (including being smacked into your screen) look fantastic and add a lot to the game's charm. Some of the darker scenes, which use shadow to keep you from seeing what lies ahead, are obviously less visually intricate, but they look good nonetheless, doing a great job of laying out the effects of flickering and extinguishing flames. The only real negative is in the camera angle, which is from a raised, side perspective, which can make it hard to judge where you're standing in relation to items around the game field, especially if they are above you, which will certainly lead to moments where you're prepared to crush a hanging crate only to tumble forward into thin air.
The sound isn't the most impressive part of this title, but it's not a detriment either, as the music is good and unobtrusive, but the sound effects, of which there are many, populate the game nicely to accentuate all the action going on. There is honestly so much going on that frequently you'll not even notice the music because of all the exploding, slicing and squishing going on.
And in the End...
This pick-up-and-play title offers up more than enough challenge to keep you busy but enough charm and enjoyment to keep trying when hitting a brick wall. Though there's a high level of frustration in places, as levels take on the ridiculous difficulty of bullethell shmups, with practice and patience, you can master the swarm and have fun doing it.