One of the big challenges associated with being an adult gamer; someone with a job, responsibilities and a variety of interests beyond gaming, is simply not having the time to sit down and play lengthy and/or complex games. Try as I might, I find myself less and less inclined as years go by to commit the time required to learn and master new game mechanics or slog my way through the artificially-elongated narratives most AAA games are saddled with to artificially extend their length. A lot of people complain when a game experience is 5-10 hours long, but I actually see that as a positive. Quite often, I simply want to be entertained for a few hours and move on to the next experience. It's only the most exceptionally well-crafted games (say 1 in 100) that leave me wanting more.
Don't get me wrong. I completely understand people being upset about paying $60 for a game experience that only lasts five hours, but that's a topic for another post. I'm talking about the idea of it being completely acceptable and often-times preferable for a game to be more of a casual experience; something I can fiddle around with for 20 minutes at a time and get a sense of satisfaction that scales based on the effort I put into it.
"Swarm" is just such a game. It's extremely light on story: You play, unsurprisingly, as a swarm of 50 "swarmites," who've been deposited on a rather hostile planet with their "mother" who spits them out at the beginning of each level and sucks the survivors back in at the end once they've traversed the area and gathered the energy necessary for her to grow.
While you can't control any of the swarmites individually, unless you find yourself left with only one, you can give the swarm commands for directional movement, jumping, clustering and spreading out, which they'll basically follow to the best of their ability. This means that they'll do what you want them to do for the most part, but are easily distracted by shiny and/or deadly things and don't have much of a self-preservation instinct to speak of; such that telling them all to cluster together and run into a spinning saw blade will result in them all being cut to ribbons. :)
In an interesting mechanical twist, you can combine the basic movement commands to achieve interesting results, such as clustering the swarm to charge their collective energy then spreading it while moving for a quick speed boost, or jumping while clustered to create a sort-of swarmite totem pole for reaching things out of normal jumping range.
The really interesting and borderline sadistic part of the game is how disposable the swarmites are. Only one need reach the end of a level to complete it and there are many spawn points along the way in each level to replenish the swarm up to its maximum of 50, so the game outright encourages you to use them recklessly; going so far as to provide a combo system that can be extended by periodically sacrificing the occasional swarmite in a variety of gruesome ways.
The idea of a game that not only embraces but encourages the wholesale murder of its protagonists is pretty unique. There have certainly been games based around the idea of disposable creatures in the past. "Lemmings" springs to mind, but the gusto and ferocity with which it's done in "Swarm" kinda raises the bar. There were several times while playing the game when I found myself gasping audibly and literally apologizing to the screen for the horrors I'd unwittingly or intentionally visited upon the poor little buggers running desperately across it.
The mixture of joy and remorse the game managed to invoke in me is a testament to just how cool and well-implemented a premise it has. I'm only a few levels into the game, so don't take this as a "review" of it as a whole, but I just can't help singing its praises based on what I've experienced so far. At $15, I feel like I've already gotten my money's worth out of it after just a few hours and would encourage all of you to at least check out the demo on your system of choice.