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Swordship review - this game is a marvel

You're a crook, Captain Hook...

Eurogamer.net - Essential badge
Brisk, stylish and compulsive, this is everything an arcade game should be.

Do you like fonts? If you like fonts, you must play Swordship. (After Pentiment.) Swordship gets fonts. It loves fonts. And it's not just the fonts themselves, but what the game does with them. Finish a level and "LINE CLEAR" is laid out on the ocean. Finish sorting your earnings and "SHIPPED" is splashed across the screen. This is a game where the fonts make things beautiful. It's even a pleasure to die, because "GAME OVER" is arranged so artfully.

Beyond the fonts, Swordship is still rather excellent. This is pure arcade brilliance, actually, a fast-paced avoid-'em-up with a maritime larceny twist. Your Swordship is a dinky yellow mischief-maker, a needle-thin arrowhead of a craft that can open its tiny jaws to grab containers lost to the ocean, and then pinch them. It can't shoot, not really anyway, but it can trick nearby enemies into killing each other. Collect containers, get the enemies to kill each other, all within the narrow confines of a single top-down screen, which is given a bit of zip by the fact that everything on the screen is actually racing over the surface of endless waves. That's Swordship's whole deal. But as with the fonts, it's not the rules of the game so much as what the game does with the rules.

Okay, so collecting containers. You're racing along, moving left and right and up and down and a container is approaching. You know this because a bright yellow line appears on the screen - a shipping lane. Get into that and collect the container! Zing! I don't think there is actually a greater feeling in any game I've played this year. Pure connection. So now, you have a container in your mouth. You can use it as a bomb to wipe the screen of enemies, or you can bank it, which means waiting until a drop-off point appears on screen and hovering there for a few seconds.

Cover image for YouTube videoSwordship | Release Window Trailer (4K)
Here's a trailer for Swordship.

That sounds easy, but in fact it's enormously hard. This is because the screen is filled with enemies. Turrets that track you and then shoot. Mines that pop up. Crackling laser walls. Hovering baddies who drop bombs from above. Rotating barbecue ovens. All sorts.

What these enemies share are red marks that show the areas that they're going to attack, and a pause before attacking which allows you to get into the red mark, make sure it's where you want it to be, and then get out again. So the overhead bomb droppers - move close to a turret you want to be rid of, wait for the red marks, and then leg it. The turrets, meanwhile, can be lured into targeting other turrets, or mines, which can be induced to go off and kill turrets, or the laser wall guys, or the fire-ball lobbers. Onwards and onwards.

Swordship level 2 - a green background with bright yellow and orange explosions
Swordship laser
Swordship explosion
Is it me or is there a touch of Pixeljunk Shooter to the colour choices? Nothing like it when it comes to the game itself, mind.

Mix the enemies up with the crates and you have a dodging game of truly glorious elegance and intrigue. I never tire of getting baddies to blast their own side. I never tire of the last minute container drop which allows me to rack up points and get out of the way again just before I'm killed. I never tire of the perfect dive - you can duck under the waves for a limited amount of time - that extinguishes a fire and gets me out of the way of a bomb. It reminds me of the classic arcade game Spy Hunter in this regard - you have to have your eye on a couple of things at any time, and it's all about positioning.

Swordship is already great, then. But for me it actually gets a little bit greater. Not just the simple low-poly graphics that burst with colour, or the brisk zip of the animations. I love the way that everything is tied together. The containers you collect - at the end of each level you can either bank them for score or keep them for extra lives. Or you can keep them and open them for a perk, maybe aligning the container lanes from now on or granting you instant drop offs. Points, meanwhile, allow you to play the long grade of opening up permanent upgrades, weather conditions, different ship abilities, and even different difficulty settings and concept art. It's endlessly surprising.

This muddling together of things, this collection of knotty choices that leaves you in charge as you trade score for health for getting yourself tricked out, actually makes Swordship feel more compact in an area - progression and unlocks - where a lot of arcade games succumb slightly to bloat. You're always making these interesting, could-go-either-way decisions. Every unlock matters, every point matters - and every life matters. This game is just phenomenal.