Review by tollbooth
"Shadows of a Platform"
Between sleep and wake, there is a world of darkness. A world akin to our own, but covered in nightshade. There is no sunshine, there are no fluffy bunnies, there is only despair. This is the land where nightmares spring like weeds on an un-kept lawn. Monsters lurk not behind corners, not in the shadows but in plain sight. A land of nightmares, plunged in eternal darkness, a home to creatures of the night. The stuff of dreams, the stuff of terror, the home of... the Swagman.
The evil Swagman, ruler of the nightmare realm, is the guy behind the guy behind the guy bringing out your worst fears while you sleep. If left unchecked, all humanity would be dunked into a nightmare world of infinite woes. Lucky for us, the Dreamflight, makers of our happy dreams, are keeping a light on. The Swagman, a dude with the fangs, and the evil eyes and the top hat reaching towards the sky, makes his move, capturing the Dreamflight, freeing his army of nightmare creatures upon the earth.
Late at night, in small town any-town, America, boisterous twins, Zack and Hannah, are reading a book by flashlight. When the Swagman strikes, had they been asleep, like all the good kids should, they would have been thrust headlong into the nightmare world. Their bodies slumbering peacefully in their beds, while their dreamselves were forever in a land of nightmares. But, they are spared. In the attack, the twins quickly hide, but little Hannah is caught, and the nightmare squad shrinks her down and sticks her in a bird cage. But Zack is never found, his watery eyes watching as his sister is imprisoned. The nightmare creatures make a bold mistake, by knocking over Zack's collection of beetles, they release the Scarab bug, King of the Beetles, a creature who knows the cracks between light, a creature that knows shadows, and a King with no love for the Swagman. With his new friend, Zack sets out on a journey to free his sister, and to save the Dreamflight... and ultimately, to save us all.
Swagman as a game, is on the short side of what I'd call the platform evolution. Before the next-gen systems came along, and games like Jak and Daxter turned the platform genre into the platform genre there were a few notable achievements. The N64 did the platform reasonably well, thus the highly acclaimed and original Mario Brothers launch title. There was also a series of crude Donkey Kong games that weren't worth their rental fees. But until the PS2 came along and perfected the art with games like Ratchet and Clank the pickings weren't just slim, they were non-existent.
The Playstation itself set a high bar for the CG sequence, and the art of the story very much became art. Notable milestones were some of the fantastic cut-scene graphics of the immortal Final Fantasy VII. But... and this is a big but... the PS was awful short on actual playtime graphics. The disc was on the scene as a legitimate alternative to the cartridge, and like it or not, gamers were taking their first steps towards what game systems would become. While Nintendo had its Mario and Donkey Kong platforms, they were still scarcely developed as the Platform games we know and love today. And if such was the case for the N64, what about Platforms on the technologically inferior Playstation?
For the most part, the PS-One stayed with what you could only call shadows of the platform. The infamously awful Crash Bandicoot comes to mind. Yet, with Swagman the platform seems to be coming out in some splendor. You can literally feel the 2D forms trying, striving, reaching for that 3D recognition that is so prevalent today.
The gameplay in Swagman is to the platform game what smoke and mirrors is to a magician's act. That is, you are playing what is essentially a 2D sidescroller action/adventure that is masked-up and presented as a 3D extravaganza. Eidos, makers of the Tomb Raider games, and the Legacy of Kain series, do this masking very well. Think back on the early Double Dragon games and remember how they were nothing but a sidescroller with depth. Instead of having a sidescroller where a character is restricted to but one section of the Z-axis and allowed to navigate along the X and the Y, you had a hero that could actually, if not freely, navigate up and down the Z as well.
Swagman takes this idea to an entirely new level. Unlike Double Dragon where the Z-axis movement was restricted by an environment screen that only moved from left-to-right and vice-a-versa, Swagman adds an up and down movement to the environment. This means that you can navigate from screen to screen in more ways then right to left.
Edios accomplishes this with a for the most part smooth top-down appearance, where the stationary camera seems almost set at a 45 degree downwards angle. It is very effective. But, depth is an issue. With the use of more shadows and texture, Edios could have made their environment completely discernible, however, half the time, you blunder into an object, or get stuck in a room for an extended stay, only to realize that the big wall you passed earlier is actually a staircase. This leads to some very problematic and potentially game-killing bouts of frustration.
At your hand, is Zack and his twin sister Hannah. For the most part, you toggle between these two heroes, dodging ghosts and avoiding trouble. They collect bugs, enabling the Scarab King to form an army. Zack and Hannah are just kids, so they are anything but formidable muscle in reality. Most of the levels are wrought with puzzles that you have to use both Zack and Hannah to solve. You might have Zack sitting on a switch while Hannah crawls through the open door. Or have Hannah planting bombs in one half of a level while Zack jumps from ledge to ledge in another.
They're armed with a flashlight what better way to fend off living nightmares and a yo-yo for Hannah, a Frisbee for Zack. You collect bombs as you go, blowing through walls in a very 8-bit Zelda type fashion. There are always switches to be thrown and gaps to be crossed. The puzzles are challenging and never get old.
And there is another dimension to this game as well. The dreamscape. Using a mirror as a doorway, Zack and Hannah can transport themselves onto the Swagman's dreamscape. In doing so, they ceases to be little kids and become Dream Beasts. Zack gets a devastating monster-fire breath and Hannah gets the laser eyes. They both come up in muscle ten-fold, throwing head butts and upper-cuts like Mike Tyson in a street fight.
The menu is friendly and easy to access. You can freely interchange weapons and items between the twins, each kid able to hold an item in each hand. Thus, you have a jump and two different attack functions. There are no deep combos, but you have to remember, this game is more of a live-action puzzle than anything else.
The Big Bang...
The graphics are on par with what the PS could do. There are some pretty amazing cut-scenes, but nothing that would blow you away. They have a cartoony-realism, with little Zack and his arogant swagger, and little Hannah, with her skips. You get torn between loving the art, but hating the impact on the environment. As before, a major drawback comes with the feel of depth and dimension. Oftentimes, the dark overcast of the art makes discerning dimension very difficult, sometimes impossible.
But, you'll find the graphics charming. These are not knock-your-socks off charmers, but they do just fine. I enjoyed them.
The music is pretty good, keeping tempo with the casual nature of the action. Not only that, but the detail of the sound-effects is a big plus. You can hear footfalls making the slosh-slosh they should in two-inches of sewer water. Each creature makes its own unique sound so you always know what's coming your way. In short, the music is great, the sound-effects are great, for early Playstation, you don't get much better than this.
The recommended time you spend catching Z's at night depending on who you ask falls somewhere between 7 and 8 hours. You'll spend about that working your way through Swagman and you won't fall asleep once.
I picked up Swagman in the EB bargain bin for 2.95. I mean, you buy a frosty and a few bacon cheeseburger jr's at Wendy's and you're in hock for 6 bucks, might as well eat some fruit and play a little Swagman instead.
Swagman is not going to be the best game you've ever played. But it is going to be well worth your time. The puzzles are akin to early Zelda and are both fun and challenging. With touching graphics and great sound coupled with the incredibly playable nature, you won't find yourself nodding off anytime soon. This game is the very evolution of the platform, a history lesson, a monkey to a human. When you mix in the creative originality of the story, I think you'll realize what a find Swagman actually is.
You'll like it... if you can find it.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 06/06/05
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