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The Unfinished Swan review

Great
AT A GLANCE
  • Discovering a world hidden in whiteness
  • The fairytale-like story
  • The constantly evolving setting and paint mechanics
  • Getting lost
  • Occasionally getting stumped by puzzles
  • Feeling sad once you’re finished

Games have conditioned us to expect and follow a checklist of objectives. But from its onset, The Unfinished Swan bravely defies this traditional framework. While it has an overarching goal, it’s a game propelled by discovery, thrusting you into an abstract world that is simultaneously full of substance and empty of everything. Your initial encounter with it may be confusing, as the starting area consists solely of an enveloping whiteness that stretches as far as the eye can see. Only by throwing balls of black paint can you discover its scenery and wildlife and begin to gain a sense of direction. While this is initially an intimidating--and at times exhausting--concept, the world and mechanics continually evolve, ultimately resulting in one of the strangest and most interesting games you’ll ever play.

The Unfinished Swan doesn’t begin with a sizzling cinematic introduction or overwrought narration. Instead, it presents a wonderfully sincere fairytale of sorts about a boy named Monroe who has lost his mother. Armed only with his mother’s silver paint brush, Monroe soon steps into a magical world in pursuit of a half-finished painting of a swan brought to life. 

Paint is always the tool with which you’ll interact with the world. It is, in a sense, your eyes in a place where you are initially blind. Launching black paint against a pure white space uncovers the environment within. This mechanic beautifully captures the sense of wonder that comes with exploring the unknown, and there’s a ton of detail hidden in the emptiness. How much you see is dependent on how much you want to see--the trick is figuring out how much paint to use to unearth the world’s secrets. You may be tempted to toss tons of paint to unveil pathways and scenery, but coating any area too heavily ends up blotting it out with darkness. In practice, this factor makes the use of paint somewhat strategic, as it can both expose and eclipse the entities residing within each setting.


Admittedly, trying to make sense of an invisible world can be frustrating, and you’ll likely get turned around a time or two while trying to figure out where to go. And while The Unfinished Swan is built around a novel mechanic, simply tossing paintballs at nothingness alone gets boring after awhile.

Thankfully, there are a few variations in the color and purpose of paint, which eventually transitions from a tool of sight to a tool of manipulation. Blue paint acts kind of like water, allowing you to feed vines and dictate a path along which they’ll grow. Using these vines as a ladder or to scale a giant chasm is often the only way to proceed or find secret collectibles. It’s never painfully obvious that this is something you can do, and to its credit, The Unfinished Swan does a great job of providing you with the necessary tools while still allowing you to discover on your own how to use them.


As paint mechanics evolve, so too does the setting, keeping The Unfinished Swan from feeling too familiar or stale. While the world is initially an invisible one, it begins to materialize as you progress. Levels are eventually built around solving simple but enjoyable puzzles, and each chapter is nearly perfect in length, always shifting before overstaying its welcome. Some levels provide a glimpse at the astonishing scale of the magical kingdom Monroe stumbled into, while others place you in bizarre flashback scenarios. Some sequences are even downright creepy. A level that takes place at night will have you running from murderous beasts under the shadow of panic-inducing darkness. The only indication you’ll have of their proximity is the red hue of their demonic eyes and Monroe’s rapidly-beating heart.

Each segment is further supplemented by The Unfinished Swan’s wonderful musical score, which does a fantastic job of providing a sense of physicality to a world you can’t always see. Sometimes it’s cheery, mimicking the sense of awe felt from looking down at a black-splattered kingdom from atop a high tower. Other times, its brevity and urgency make frightening monsters all the more terrifying. The music always acts as a lens into Monroe’s state of mind, and in a game that will sometimes leave you feeling a bit blind, it helps build an understanding of each location you’ll inevitably uncover. 

The Unfinished Swan certainly isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience. Some may find issue with its two- to three-hour length, while others may find its focus on discovery to be boring. But there’s a lot to be found in that world made of invisible ink, and for those willing to experiment and approach it with an open mind, the act of uncovering it all is an exciting experience--even if you do have to get your hands dirty with a little paint in the process.

More Info

Release date: Oct 16 2012 - PS3 (US)
Available Platforms: PS3
Genre: Puzzle
Published by: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developed by: Giant Sparrow
ESRB Rating:
Everyone 10+: Fantasy Violence

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14 comments

  • The_Fox - October 16, 2012 7:38 p.m.

    I remember when you were on PTOM. Do you finish the swan at the end of the game? What hair. What hair. WORD WORD.
  • GR_RyanTaljonick - October 26, 2012 5:47 p.m.

    Hah, I did indeed work at PTOM for awhile :D
  • 7-D - October 15, 2012 10:45 p.m.

    I've been quietly and patiently excited by this game for a while, i'm glad it's getting good write ups. Will be getting this at the first possible opportunity and will probably bang a tab or two before I boot it up.
  • avantguardian - October 16, 2012 2:16 a.m.

    it's become a tradition of mine to dose during the first session of a new game. recent highlights include ssx and borderlands 2. this game seems to almost demand it:D
  • BladedFalcon - October 15, 2012 11:14 a.m.

    "Occasionally Getting Stumped by puzzles" ..Um... Seriously? This is considered a negative thing nowadays? Last time I checked, as long as the answer to the puzzle wasn't too obtuse or irrational, it kinda means that it's a clever and challenging puzzle. You guys do remember that challenge is something GOOD, right? /Rant Anyway, I was cautiously interested in this one, kinda fearing it could end up being gimmicky, but I'm glad to see it's not! Probably will give it a go sooner than later ^^
  • dcobs123 - October 15, 2012 5:34 p.m.

    I understand where your coming from that point might be justified. I can't say for sure considering I haven't played it yet, but it seems like this game is meant to be a very passive experience and puzzles might break up the game's flow. That's just a guess though.
  • dcobs123 - October 15, 2012 5:35 p.m.

    Sorry, meant to say "but that point"
  • BladedFalcon - October 15, 2012 8:42 p.m.

    Well yeah, to be fair i can't quite judge yet until I play the game. But what I meant is that the way they wrote it, they make it sound as if a puzzle leaving you stumped was inherently a bad thing, since they never really go to explain WHY could be bad in this case. But yeah, if the puzzles feel out of place from the setting and feel the game is going for, then I can understand that complaint, but again, I didn't read that in this review.
  • dcobs123 - October 17, 2012 6:55 p.m.

    Yeah your right that they should've worded it better. I guess that's the problem with describing parts of a game in short bullet points.
  • jackthemenace - October 15, 2012 11:02 a.m.

    This definitely seems interesting. PSN, right? Because it seems like the kind-of thing that'd be perfect for a Humble Indie Bundle. This is definitely something I want, but I'll probably only end up getting it if the PSN store has a big indie-style sale, due to it's length, and the fact I always seem to be really hit-and-miss playing arthouse games.
  • BaraChat - October 15, 2012 10:25 a.m.

    I've been interested in this game since I read the preview in EDGE. Glad to see it lived up to the hype. :)
  • JarkayColt - October 15, 2012 9:48 a.m.

    Nice review, the artstyle and premise had me interested ever since this game was announced but I was worried it'd just be a shallow and boring experience coated in an artsy-fartsy shell. I'm pretty sure I could turn those "2-3 hours" into about 4-6 before I'm done because I take way too long exploring games even if there's nothing there. At least this sounds like I'd be doing it for a reason!
  • NullG7 - October 15, 2012 10 a.m.

    Agreed. Smaller games are often all the more interesting because of the attention to detail. I would say that novel Ideas like this should be seen more in games but novel it the wrong word; novel paints it into the corner of being new and weird. A better way to say it is uncovering tools for innovation. I apologize for the puns, I cant say it another way.
  • JarkayColt - October 15, 2012 12:57 p.m.

    Yep, you can really put games like this into perspective if you compare them to, say, open world games. I usually really hate open-world games, because the 'openess' is incredibly deceptive, in that it takes you hours to trudge about but there's hardly anything there, especially games in cities for example, where you might be able to only enter a few select buildings, which conversely just makes the worlds feel really "empty" instead. I'd like to think a more concise and tight environment is better because, whilst it may seem smaller, there's a lot more interactivity per square inch, and the stuff they do with that concise space is usually better because the core gameplay mechanics are in greater focus. ...if any of that made sense.

Showing 1-14 of 14 comments

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