The top down shmup genre is one were innovation is hard to come by, simply because it’s been done over and over again pretty much since Asteroids – so it’s no mean feat by the developers when they cause me to have to say that Swarm Universe is quite a unique little beast, indeed.
It stands out mechanically because you aren’t controlling a spaceship or whatever here, gaining power ups and blasting out bullets – instead, you control a large, glowing light…thing, around which gather a swarm of little smaller glowing light…things that swing about depending on the momentum of your movement, causing damage to enemies upon contact.
As well as controlling the swarm by analogue control movement, you can also fire the swarm away from your central point to cause damage from long range, or quickly dash to cause the swarm to instantly move in another direction.
Graphically, the game is quite striking, with the futuristic dark backgrounds being a good backdrop for the neon action – it looks visually confusing to an onlooker, but to the actual player it all gels well, and you’re always aware of what’s going on and what to do next.
It all works really well – it allows for a fluid, easy to pick up but hard to master, mechanically involving indie game that rewards split-second evasion and mastery of momentum and angles. It is a really good gaming experience and one that would be easy to recommend…
…if the developers hadn’t utterly shat the bed on their business model.
Yes, I had to start with the good and be quite blunt with it, because the bulk of this review isn’t going to be about that. Instead, I have to talk about what a terrible missed opportunity Swarm Universe is very likely to be. It is the classic case of getting the some of the basics right but getting everything else wrong.
Swarm Universe sells itself as a single-player and multiplayer experience, with a solo campaign featuring Bot-7 – a cheeky little robotic guide that is, to begin with, surprisingly charming and raised the odd chuckle from me, with the well animated expressions akin to the robots from WALL-E. He very effectively gives you a tutorial, expertly teaching you how to play the game in a fun, short way.
But that’s where the single-player element of this game either should have completely stopped or had much, much more attention given to it.
See, Swarm Universe, by its own admission, doesn’t want to give you a single-player gaming experience. I can say that, because the game itself admits it – it openly hates its own narrative and takes the ever-loving piss out of it. I’m not joking; that’s actually the point of the single-player game – to point out that it is terrible, and you should be playing multiplayer instead.
In a way, that’s cute. But it would only work if it was a bluff and opened up to far superior content. But no, it never does – it is deadly serious about how naff the story is. Not only that, mechanically many of the single-player sections are absolutely awful too – they consist of ‘get from Point A to Point B’ through uninspired tunnels filled with the same enemies over and over again, bookended by deliberately terrible narrative. These were so poor that in the end I realised that I could skip combat altogether by racing through the levels from checkpoint to checkpoint; there’s no penalty for doing this.
Yet weirdly, every now and again you get an arena-style level which pits you in one room and has you avoid and kill spawning enemies until you hit the points cap needed to beat the level – and these are actually brilliant, as it highlights the gameplay strengths of the game and harks towards the multiplayer potential it has. It’s a shame, then, that there is only a grand total of six of these levels in the entire game.
If it didn’t sell itself as a single-player game on Steam, it wouldn’t be as big an issue – but it openly does, with a single-player tag proudly displayed on the store page for a two hour long joke of an experience.
What Swarm Universe is doing instead with this title is giving a barebones experience but then giving the community all the tools to create user-generated content through Steam Workshop. The Modding feature provided is very extensive yet not exactly easy to understand for a novice – information is provided at rapid-fire pace by tooltips in a somewhat messy menu system.
Yet this approach begins to expose the weakness of the business model I spoke of earlier – because in order for this game to have value for the consumer, it needs two things:
- An active multiplayer user base to find online matchmaking easily and regularly.
- A committed modding community regularly creating fresh content.
Unfortunately, Swarm Universe has neither of those things, even weeks after release, meaning the title is a barren wasteland of nothing happening.
Instead, Swarm Universe comes alive if you have a friend who has a copy too, because it is a fabulous arena deathmatch game. It’s a thrill as you deftly try and outmanoeuvre your foe to gain the upper hand before deftly landing that killer shot at the right moment to take the game.
Not only that, the flexibility of the level creator allows for a myriad of ingenious multiplayer options – including a competent Bomberman clone. It makes me yearn for an active player base so I can play this game over and over again against different players with different win conditions.
I can honestly say that it really is a crying shame. What it needed to do is provide a raft of options to rope players in and keep them playing, as well as a passive multiplayer queuing system which allowed a player to search for a multiplayer match whilst playing single-player – and by single-player, I mean loads of various different arena-style levels to play on, because they are by far and away the best thing about single-player in this game.
Swarm Universe is easy to recommend to groups of friends who play on Steam together who want a fast-paced, unique and smart arena deathmatch game. But it is absolutely impossible to recommend to anybody else at this current time.
A potentially great game that has maybe had its potential pulled out from underneath it by a poorly executed release.
Developer: Dedication Games
Publisher: Dedication Games
Available: PC – Steam
Release Date: 30th March 2017