I’m torn between so many games right now (arguably, too many games). Between the vast Breath of the Wild, the absurdly subversive (and great) Nier: Automata, and the ever-stylish Persona 5, it’s hard for me to find time for the smaller games floating in the ether. So for this week’s Digital Gems, I’m reflecting on a mobile game that dominated my time over the winter holidays: Swap Sword.
Swap Sword, from developers AP Thomson and Diego Garcia, is a match 3 game for iOS with a rare sense of challenge and urgency. You idly control a character, where swiping across the screen moves them and unleashes their sword—whether a stick of dynamite lies in your path, or an egg ready to hatch a foe. Your goal is to use your puzzling skills to match together 3 or more keys, unlocking enough per level to progress through a door. But there’s a trick in store: there are constant enemies on your tail, and they move one step closer to you with every turn. And also, use too many turns, and an ultra-powerful foe appears who will slice you to death instantly if they get near you.
Swap Sword isn’t your average match 3 game because of this: if anything, it has more in common with the quiet strategy that it takes to progress through a procedurally generated map. (A note: I have personally sworn off the phrase “roguelikes” because it detracts from games by comparing it to another game, Rogue.) Swap Sword has three sections of level-types: its first is normal, letting you learn the ropes. Its second introduces windmills, where swiping them together nets you an extra turn to slicing through items in its vicinity. Stage three is where things get tricky, as slippery ice blocks become integrated into the game.
I keep going back to Swap Sword, even long after I’ve “beaten” it several times. Like other great procedurally generated mobile games (see: Downwell), Swap Sword is a game that never gets old at the touch of your fingers, because it’s always shifting. With every level beaten, you are offered the chance of an upgrade to spice things up (from a temporary restoration heart to an ability to explode the tiles around you). And unlike other procedurally generated games, Swap Sword is still just a match 3 game at heart, so its redundancy never overstays its welcome.
It doesn’t hurt that Swap Sword is almost absurdly cute as well. With visual design led by Garcia, the pixelated enemies and player’s character bob up and down with tire, as if they are anxiously awaiting and pondering their next moves. Every other object sparkles on the map: whether via a dynamite’s flame or a key’s shimmer. Swap Sword’s animations are carefully detailed, and with its delightful design elevates the game beyond just another charming match 3.
I first got wind of Swap Sword through Twitter, after having interviewed Thomson in the past regarding another project Beglitched, a game that also bears a clever twist on the match 3 genre. Beglitched is an adorable (and surprisingly challenging) PC and Mac game about hacking through a Glitch_Witch’s computer via compelling match 3 puzzles (and more). Swap Sword's co-creator Garcia was also one-third of the team behind the perky iOS and Android game about “existential dread,” Sunburn!.
I don’t play many games on my phone (aside from Neko Atsume), but when I do, it’s usually a match 3 game. But as with most mobile games, I usually move on pretty quickly. With Swap Sword though, that moving on never materialized. Swap Sword has kept me repeatedly engaged in the months since its release in December. And if I find myself bored on a bus ride or wherever else, chances are I’ll open up the app and try to desperately to swipe my way to victory again.h