I feel that often people calling a game "casual" immediately gives it the stigma of being easy, something you just put in because it's easy to win and you've had a long day. Either that or a freemium game like Candy Crush (I'll repent for uttering those words later). Either way, I feel that "casual" has come to mean "pansy game for people who can't handle a challenge." I disagree. To me, the word "casual" just means that it's something that doesn't lock you into a commitment. A game where you can honestly tell yourself "just one level" is casual. I bring this up because even though I would certainly call Star Swapper by Tap it Games a casual game with it's complete lack of story, it's minimal yet appealing graphics, calming music, and seemingly simple goal, it is also however an incredibly difficult yet only occasionally frustrating game that I think could make a great addition to the library of a puzzle lover who needs something meaty to sink their teeth into.
Star Swapper is available on Steam for $4.99.
This is a puzzle game akin to Bejeweled or Mahjong. I'm not saying puzzle games can't have good stories, I'm saying that there is no narrative, but doesn't really need it. If there was too much of a story it would either seem disingenuous or it would ruin the casual ambiance, so I give the lack of story a pass.
The gameplay itself is incredibly simple. You have stars with greek letters on them and you have to move them around the tracks to get them to their corresponding space. It's a variation on the old sliding tile puzzle that usually turns up as a minigame in far larger games. Two lines means the star can move back and forth, one line means that you could either move it back or forth. You move the stars by clicking them and then on the empty adjacent space you'd like to move it to. Once they're all in place, the stars form an existing constellation. Honestly, in roughly an eighth of the time it took for me to write this, you probably could have figured out exactly how this game works. There is a tutorial that you can bring up if ever you have any questions, which I highly doubt you will. Every new mechanic is distinct and easy to grasp the first time.
The gameplay video for Star Swapper:
While the gameplay itself is simple, once you actually start playing the game it's actually incredibly challenging. Much like picking up a truck with your bare hands, the game is simple but challenging. Yes it sounds easy in theory, but then suddenly you are presented with a complex web of stars, each with a distinct place, and one or two empty places to help shuffle everything around, you suddenly realize you've basically bought the PC game equivalent of a rubik's cube.
Then, if and when you figure out how to solve the puzzle, the game grades you based on the time it took you and the number of moves you took. I'm fine with the latter, putting a par on these games always adds a sense of urgency and keeps you striving to do better with each stage rather than just giving you congratulations for playing the game YOUR way. I'm not so much a fan of the way it times you. Every time I'd finally figure out a stage it would tell me "you could do better." Oh really game? I don't need that attitude, and that ticking time is making it tough for me to think through this contemplative puzzle game. Give me the time trial after I finish the stage the first time, it's a distraction for the first time. This is a nitpick, but it's such a simple game that I find it difficult to find anything to talk about in depth.
This is also quite a long game. You would think five dollars would get you either a bunch of barely designed games on a hardly functional mechanic, but with Star Swapper you get a massive universe full of really challenging puzzles to solve. Nintendo used to make their games difficult to compensate for the fact that they couldn't program in a lot of content, but this game has difficult content galore! Were there a story I would say it was too long, but you play these games just to plink away at the difficult puzzles until you finally figure it out and move on. It's not like there's a plot to advance that got padded just to make the game worth the price tag, so I would say even the length of the game works to its advantage.
Graphics and audio
One thing that this game has over other casual games is how it looks and sounds. None of it is super complex, but it's just right for what the game is. The calming ambient music, soft sound effects, and simple yet beautiful graphics make the game feel like you're some sort of god playing with the cosmos itself for your own amusement. It's so casual and yet it feels so badass, which is a wonderful balance. I mean, it isn't a game that completely dazzled me, but there was a beauty in the simplicity that I couldn't help but enjoy. I always admire when a developer does the best they can with the resources available, and Tap it Games really does a great job flaunting what they have, however little, with how this game looks and sounds.
I don't think this game would win any awards, but for what it is: a simple puzzle game, it's definitely one of the better ones I've played. It is super difficult, but it also isn't stressful as long as you learn to ignore that ticking clock mechanic. It's a game that finds beauty in its own simplicity, and I find it very difficult to hate and review for that. It feels like criticizing a Sudoku or Crossword puzzle. Yeah it may not fit everyone's needs and yeah it may not be the most complex experience you've ever had to endure but at the end of the day if you wanted an engaging story with memorable characters and an interface that makes an airplane cockpit look like Tapper, you'd be playing something else. This is a game you pick up when you just need a little bit of a breather without letting your brain fall asleep completely, like Bejeweled or any of the other games by PopCap. If you've played the casual games and find yourself craving a bit more of a meaty challenge, this would probably be the first game I would recommend. It's challenging, it's simple, and there's a heck of a lot of it. It isn't a mega outstanding game, it doesn't do a whole lot new with its mechanics, but with what it has and what it does, it's a good game. Star Swapper may not shine as brightly as most, but it's definitely earned a place in my sky.
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|+ Easy to learn||-- Annyoing ticking clock mechanic|
|+ Difficult puzzles||-- A bit of a shallow experience|
|+ Soothing graphics and music|