Wildfires are no joke, and Ryan Kubik’s latest offering proves that beyond a doubt. In his charming puzzler Wildfire Swap, players must switch around tiles to stop a raging wildfire from reaching the all-too-easily combustible houses. A simple enough concept, perhaps, but with the fire spreading rapidly with every move you make, pretty soon you may find there’s nowhere to hide.
Wildfire Swap is out now on Steam for your regional pricing.
Story – Where There’s Smoke
The game finds itself in an interesting position where, as you might expect in a puzzle game, there isn’t much in the way of a story, but the game still has a message to convey. There’s not really a ‘narrative’ per se, beyond ‘fire is spreading through each level, it’s your job to stop it’, but in the way its core mechanics tie in to a central conceit it still manages to get across the swift and alarming power of a wildfire, from a single flame to a raging inferno, and how narrow the margin of error is for anyone looking to fight it back.
Above all, there is a sense that the fires themselves are unstoppable, and there’s only so much you can do to stave off their destructive power. As Kubik himself puts it: ‘Like wildfires in the real world, you’re at the mercy of the flames. You cannot extinguish them — you must do your best to contain them.’ It’s certainly a timely message, with endless news over the last few years of wildfires causing havoc across the globe, from California to Australia. Somehow, even in its guise of a cute and charming pixel puzzler, Wildfire Swap still manages to convey how quickly and easily they can get out of control, and the gravity of the issue.
Gameplay – Stop the Spread
The basic gameplay loop of Wildfire Swap is a relatively simple one: a fire starts from a certain square or squares on each map, and your job is to stop it from spreading to any of the houses by swapping tiles around to create firebreaks. Fire travels to adjacent squares if they have burnable material like trees or grass, and will spread by one square in each available direction every time you make a move. If any houses catch on fire, it’s game over.
It’s a pretty simple concept, but already from the outset it allows for a lot of variety and some disarmingly complex puzzles. As you play through the game, new obstacles are thrown in to keep things novel: grey tiles can’t be swapped, so you’ll need to factor them into your plans, while grass immediately goes up in flames, allowing the fire to spread across multiple tiles in a single turn but potentially netting you some empty tiles if you can keep it under control until it burns out. By World 4, you’ll be dealing with fans as well, which allow flames to jump across empty squares and further complicate your desperate attempts at damage control.
It’s classic easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master puzzle gameplay: the central mechanic is a straightforward one (fire spreads, swap tiles to cut it off), but it’s versatile enough that it allows for an astonishing amount of complexity and variety just by setting things up in a certain way. The extra obstacles and mechanics added later on never distract from the core premise, but merely add an extra wrinkle or two in what is already a very strong puzzle foundation.
The fact that the fire only spreads when you make a move is a great approach that adds a kind of ‘timed’ element to each level. Personally, I’ve never liked timed missions in games (far too stressful), but Wildfire Swap’s approach means that you can still take your time and peruse the map before making a move while still giving a sense of encroaching and inevitable danger that keeps you on your toes and invested in solving each puzzle. It’s not enough to have an idea of how you want the map to look by the end if you want to keep your houses safe – with the fire spreading every turn, you need to constantly keep tabs on how it’s moving to make sure it doesn’t prematurely turn your carefully-laid plans to cinders.
Luckily, a couple of very simple anti-frustration measures are included to make sure things don’t get too overwhelming. It’s just two buttons, one to undo the previous move and one to reset the level, but they work to alleviate any potential vexation and allow you to pinpoint where something might have gone wrong and experiment with different choices with a satisfying level of granularity. This is particularly useful on the occasions when new mechanics are introduced and it isn’t immediately obvious exactly how they work in the context of the game. You might see a wind turbine and figure it’s got something to do with wind, but it’s helpful to be able to rewind a turn once you figure out the exact effect they have so you can rework your strategy accordingly.
Puzzles are tough, especially later in the game, and you’ll likely find yourself staring at a particular level for a while, working out exactly how everything fits together, before the solution presents itself. The game doesn’t feature anything like, say, Room to Grow‘s option to skip puzzles altogether, but each world frequently gives you a choice of levels at intersections, meaning that if a particular puzzle is giving you trouble you can try and figure out the other one and still make meaningful progress through the game. There are bonus levels available too, which eventually reveal Celeste-style B-sides to each world with more rock-hard puzzles to crack.
All in all, Wildfire Swap does exactly what a puzzle game should: it takes a particular mechanic and theme and manages to twist it around in ways that make it intriguing and novel without muddying the waters by piling on too much else. It trusts in its central conceit, and the result is a genuinely engaging puzzler that manages to be challenging to work through but immensely satisfying to overcome.
Graphics and Audio – Peaceful Pixel Pyrotechnics
Wildfire Swap has a charming pixel art visual style with a surprising amount of detail for such a relatively simple game: there’s a bit of variation in the trees, grass and other sprites rather than just repeating one model, and the fires are smoothly animated with little dots of flame drifting off into the air. There’s even shading and shadow work on most of the sprites, providing a sense of depth even to these lo-fi visuals.
It’s clear a lot of love went into the visual style of the game, and the same goes for the music. Audio designer Wesley Mueller clearly wanted to keep it in line with the visuals, so the music is of a lovely chiptune variety which, despite its retro aesthetic, manages to be a delight to listen to and even manages to reflect the design of each world in the variations of its repeating motifs.
World 1 features a jaunty but driving tune to get you through the first few puzzles, while by the time you get to World 4, where the introduction of fans and bigger gaps between bits of each level gives a sense of being high up in the clouds, the music is appropriately more airy and ethereal, with a synthy line floating high above the rest even as the familiar bass line continues down below.
Wildfire Swap was reviewed on PC with a key provided by Ryan Kubik.