The Unfinished Swan review: A beautiful piece of art wrapped in an interactive fairy tale

The Unfinished Swan reviewThere is a very good chance that someday in the future we will look back at 2012 as the year when the traditional business model for gaming began to change. Later this year, we will see the release of the Wii U, and there are certainly several major games still due out to join the catalog of excellent titles from this year, but one of the biggest trends in gaming this year has been the increase in exceptional digitally distributed games, like Journey, The Walking Dead, and Papo & Yo. You can go ahead and throw The Unfinished Swan on that list.

The last year has seen the release of several incredible games that have been released via digital distribution, and that is a trend that shows no signs of ebbing. More and more developers are looking at the format as a way to release inventive and creative games that may not fit anywhere else, including on the expanding mobile platforms. Journey is a 3-4 hour game without a single word of dialogue, and yet it is one of the best multiplayer experiences of the year. Quantum Conundrum is a bit too short to compete with the full AAA release of Portal 2, but it is an admirable addition to the library of any puzzle fan. Neither, however, would fit on a mobile device, and neither would survive as a full retail release. The medium is growing, and an increasing number of games like The Unfinished Swan, games with an original slant and a heartfelt narrative, are going to be what drives it.

As an ambassador to the medium, The Unfinished Swan did its job admirably. The game is beautiful, the design is engaging, the story is charming. And even if you don’t enjoy any of those aspects, most will agree that it is a work of art. 

The Unfinished Swan is the story of a lonely orphan boy named Monroe who notices that his mother’s unfinished painting of a swan is suddenly missing the swan. He investigates and finds himself in a world dominated by color — or the absence of it. Using a paintball like projectile, he begins to uncover the hidden environment around him, and in doing so learns about the king of the realm, a ruler that created his kingdom through drawings.

The Unfinished SwanThe story is told through several hidden narrative blocks you come across, each of which plays out like a page from a fairy tale being read to you by a soothing, maternal sounding narrator. Each of the game’s four chapters reveals more about the King and his kingdom, eventually leading to a revelation that will change Monroe’s life as well as your understanding of the game.

If you have been following the game, then you may have seen a portion of the opening, which is an entirely white world that you uncover and define with black paint. The setting borders on ominous as you see the outline of a monster swim by you in a stream, and the lack of pigment (with the exception of a few blotches of color that mark some significant moment or offer you direction) can be a tad unsettling.

But soon enough, the monochromatic canvas yields to a castle seen through defining shadows, complete with a maze and a bizarre geometry that is dominated by growing vines that you feed to help you through otherwise impassable sections. That then propels you to a world of night, with color accentuating and creating the form, and protecting you from the unknown. Color is a fundamental part of this game, and it is one that is used to brilliant effect, even just through its absence.  

While adding paint to the world is the primary mechanic you use, it is just one of several gameplay offerings. The game is never complex. There is very little in the way of problem solving, at least until later in the game, when you create blocks that then are mirrored in another world, but that is usually just a matter of filling in the blocks rather than making any decisions. Along the way you will hunt balloons which you cash in for upgrades that offer a few new gameplay elements, but you can complete the entire game easily without unlocking anything.

Unfinished SwanThe Unfinished Swan is not a game in the traditional sense, but rather an interactive narrative that has moments of gamesmanship. That doesn’t make it any less compelling though, as the story and design of the game have an undeniable charm that will make you want to uncover the next story panel and see the next section. It all leads to a final moment that is skillfully handled, and an ending that should leave you smiling.

The biggest issue with the game is simply its length. You can power through the game in 2-3 hours. If you meticulously search for every collectible balloon you can probably push that by 30 minutes to an hour, maybe, but that is the absolute maximum. With that truncated length also comes underutilized mechanics. A great deal more could have been made of the mechanics if there were additional time to explore them. Judging The Unfinished Swan by that standard, $14.99 might seem a bit steep. But when you consider the price of a movie ticket, paying roughly the same amount for 3 hours of interactive narrative that is emotional and beautiful, isn’t a bad deal at all.

Conclusion

Putting the length aside, the game is a triumph of minimalism. You won’t feel the thrill of completing a difficult puzzle or take pride in defeating a difficult boss — The Unfinished Swan isn’t that type of game. In fact, it isn’t really clear what type of game it is until you complete it and have time to digest it all.

The Unfinished Swan does two things it likely didn’t set out to do, but will certainly be pleased to know: First, it further legitimizes the medium of digitally distributed games, and could encourage even more developers to experiment. Secondly, it adds new ammunition to the cause of games as art. A bit more content that made more use of the gameplay mechanics would have helped push it further into the mainstream, but there is no question: The Unfinished Swan is a work of art.

Score: 8.5 out of 10

(This game was reviewed on a copy provided to us by the publisher)

Product Review

Anthem shows a glimmer of brilliance that's quickly dampened by its grind

Anthem is an online shooter from BioWare that’s already proven to have a stunning open-world with action-packed combat that distinguishes itself with its story, characters, and lore. But will it continue to invest in those things as we…
Gaming

You're never too broke to enjoy the best free-to-play games

Believe it or not, free-to-play games have evolved into engaging, enjoyable experiences. Here are a few of our favorites that you can play right now, including Warframe and the perennially popular League of Legends.
Gaming

This list of PlayStation 4 exclusives puts its competitors to shame

The PlayStation 4's game library and incredible selection of exclusive games could make anyone with an Xbox One or Nintendo Switch think twice. Here's our list of the latest and greatest PS4 exclusives.
Gaming

These are the must-have games that every Xbox One owner needs

More than four years into its life span, Microsoft's latest console is finally coming into its own. From Cuphead to Halo 5, the best Xbox One games offer something for players of every type.
Gaming

Your PlayStation 4 game library isn't complete without these games

Looking for the best PS4 games out there? Out of the massive crop of titles available, we selected the best you should buy. No matter what your genre of choice may be, there's something here for you.
Computing

Here's what you need to play games and watch movies in 4K on your PC

4K display tech is now cheaper than ever, but there's more to running stuff at such a high display resolution than just handing over the dough for a 4K-equipped display. Here's what you need to run 4K.
Gaming

Activision not doing itself any favors with Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 loot boxes

New loot boxes added to Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 have caused a somewhat uneven playing field for those who choose to spend extra money. Certain limited-time items can now only be found in loot boxes.
Computing

Between Intel and AMD, these are the best gaming CPUs at every price

What are the best processors for gaming you can buy? You don't need to spend a fortune to get an amazing gaming CPU and now that AMD is competitive again, there are more choices than ever.
Computing

Logitech’s G MX518 gaming mouse pairs classic looks with all-new tech

Logitech is relaunching one of its most popular classic gaming mice, the MX518. Now called the G MX518, it sports upgraded internals that give it a 16,000 DPI optical sensor and new and improved memory.
Gaming

One game console is better than the rest, and we're not afraid to say it

We've seen a relatively large influx of new consoles in the last year, including the Nintendo Switch and Xbox One X, so we've updated our recommendations for the best dedicated game hardware.
Gaming

Everything we know about Devil May Cry 5, including characters and combat

Devil May Cry 5 is just around the corner, and is the first game in the original series since Devil May Cry 4 in 2008. Here is everything we know about the game, including its playable characters.
Gaming

Apex Legends adds its first new gun, the Havoc energy rifle

Respawn added the first piece of new content to Apex Legends, the Havoc energy rifle. It's available now for PS4, Xbox One, and PC players. The fully automatic rifle can be modded to shoot single-shot energy beams.
Gaming

Samsung Galaxy S10 optimizations make it great for Fortnite

Samsung's new line of Galaxy S10 devices have been optimized for gaming. All three offer improved support for the Unity engine and the S10 Plus also offers vapor chamber cooling, similar to the Xbox One X.
Gaming

Having problems with your Xbox One console? We have the solutions

The Xbox One has evolved over the years, but so have its problems. Thankfully, we have solutions for some of the console's most enduring problems, whether you're experiencing issues with connectivity or your discs.