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Death in videogames is inevitable. There’s always a gap too wide, an enemy too vicious, or a mushroom just a little too poisonous. But it’s rarely celebrated and embraced the way it is in Swarm, a side-scrolling platformer that gives you a horde of 50 little run-and-jumpers and asks only that you make it to the level’s end with at least one of them left alive. It’s a simple request, but remember – this game loves death, so don’t expect it to be easy. Funny, yes. But not easy.
There’s no single main character in Swarm – each of your “swarmites” looks the same, moves the same, and has the grim reaper on speed dial just the same. But that doesn’t make things hard to control at all. You simply drive the whole herd around with the left analog stick and direct them all to jump with a single button, just like you would if the swarm was a lone character. The swarmites aren’t smart - actually, they're dumb as posts, although the fact that they've been designed to be dense is something of a triumph of artificial life programming - but they are obedient.
Above: They run and jump as one, but they die individually. There's something poetic in that.
To help you keep them away from flaming pits and bottomless crevices, the swarmites have a marching band-like ability to run in different formations. You can huddle them tightly together to get through a tight spot, then release the clump to gain a quick speed boost (which also helps you jump further). You can spread them out to grab more collectible DNA for their alien “mama” (or get through a minefield with minimal losses) and you can quick-swap between both formations for a bashing charge attack that becomes a sort of double jump when used in midair. Or, because there's a robust physics system in the game, you can pull them in tight and then jump a few times, which will arrange them into a teetering totem pole of little blue suicide machines, able to reach high switches and other goodies. Add in the swarmites’ ability to interact with the environment by grabbing and throwing bombs they find, making a furnace explode by jamming their tubby little bodies into its intake pipes, and so on, and you have a compelling blend of fresh and familiar platform/physics puzzling.
Above: When throwing bombs is the safe thing to do, you know you're in a hostile environment.
Why do our pudgy, dim-witted heroes need all of these abilities? Because the levels they’re traversing look like the kind of neighborhood even Super Meat Boy might drive a few blocks out of his way to avoid, all full of fire and spikes gas bombs and other death traps. There are nine different categories of death – electrocution, vaporization, electrocution, asphyxiation (you get the picture) – and each comes in countless flavors. In fact, that’s where much of Swarm’s humor comes from – the sheer brutality and overall variety of methods with which the cute little morons are constantly put to death. As our demoer put it, “These guys are blue and soft and tiny and everything else is big and sharp and dangerous”.
Above: Some of these things are desired collectibles. Others explode. This is going to get ugly.
With worlds like this, do you even need enemies? No, but the developers have thrown some in anyhow. The levels we played were home to several large, cyborg helicopter/bird on fire … things. It’s a good thing there are waypoints in each level that will replenish your army - our kill counts are looking steep. It’s also a good thing Swarm is due out “March-ish”. We’re eager to see how many little, blue jellybean guys we can send to their doom in the name of entertainment. It's looking like millions... and that's the whole point, so we're okay with it.
Jan 21, 2011