Let me immediately address the elephant in the room: Swarmlake is inspired by Devil Daggers. There’s no question about that. It’s an arcadey first-person shooter that outfits you with a bimodal weapon set in a small rectangular arena with swarms of enemies you have to kill and avoid. A creation of Dominique Grieshofer, the designer behind the delightful Refunct, Swarmlake wears its inspiration on its sleeve and that’s OK. To that end, this review is going to use Devil Daggers as a point of comparison.
Of course, Swarmlake differentiates itself from Devil Daggers as well – it’s much more casual and I posit that it aims to make you feel better about yourself than its spiritual predecessor does. The primary goal is to get a high score by collecting green diamonds that drop from your fallen foes similar to geoms in the Geometry Wars series. This and the fact that you can’t fall off the arena, dovetails to form the base of a more casual outing by allowing you to avoid your pursuers indefinitely. Your score won’t increase of course, but you might feel better about your session at least. Furthermore, the leaderboard resets every 24 hours so you always have a plausible chance at getting #1 on the leaderboard. Imagine my surprise when I realized I was not, in actual fact, hot shit for breaking Top 50.
There’s an added verticality to Swarmlake as well. It turns out Devil Daggers has a jump button (no seriously), but it’s a very shallow, almost imperceptible, jump meant to gain speed; especially when chained together like bunnyhopping. Conversely, Swarmlake allows you to shoot into the ground to rocket jump upwards. You can repeat this motion, while airborne, if you shoot into enemies below you. This lets you reach awesome heights to get a break from the thousands of enemies on your tail but will keep you away from the geoms needed to raise your score. I found that hidden risk/reward aspect to be compelling.
Now’s a good time to jump
The last point of comparison I will draw is the sound design of both games. Music is conspicuously absent from Devil Daggers. If you get good enough, you’ll know exactly why – the audio will sometimes serve as your best indicator of the threats around you. Instead, Grieshofer employed a hypnotic Drum & Bass track from Kristofferson to serve as the backdrop for Swarmlake. Since I believe it was a design goal of Grieshofer’s to give the player a casual, trance-like, experience, I think this directorial decision makes sense.
Courtesy of MPR Blog
Where I think the central design goal fails me as a player however, is that I don’t think it’s challenging enough to reach an actual flow state. It falls below the Flow spectrum in the oft-cited flow state chart, dipping down into Boredom. I found a technique that worked for me and that was the same technique I used to reach the first 10 (of 26) score tiers captured by Steam Achievements. Furthermore, it seems that the majority of players that reach the 20th achievement tier, have reached the 26th. So I suspect they too have found a strategy that works for them and continued to execute it ad nauseum. If that disclaimer doesn’t bother you, then Swarmlake’s sub-dollar price tag and solid polish may push this into recommendation territory for you.
Score: 3 out 5 (Cautiously Recommended)
Swarmlake is available on Steam for $0.99