Swordship is a death-dodging dance of risk and reward

As the world’s oceans rose, humanity took to hiding in three underwater cities, as a result, space is at a premium and large numbers of people are cast out to survive in the ruined world. In Swordship you’re a rebel from the city government, stealing vital cargo and supplies to deliver them to the refugees.

Swordship is an arcade dodge-’em-up, a refined vertical shooter where you can’t shoot – instead having to either avoid or trick robots and defences into destroying each other like goofy martial arts movie henchmen. It’s a sleek, slick experience where you must carefully slide or dive your weaponless ship around the screen, avoiding mines, weapons and walls. When it comes down to it it’s all about reading the room, something that’s easy if you can retain focus because every enemy or hostile object indicates where it will appear or attack. But, the real reason that Swordship is great is because of two simple, well-crafted risk-reward loops.

The first loop is the score. Arcade-style games having a score mechanic isn’t anything new at all, in fact, it’s core to the experience. However, with Swordship that score is also a progression mechanic; When you first hit a milestone you’ll unlock something new — be that a new mechanic, new enemies in a zone, new ships or things like concept art. When you suddenly land a big score, because something about it all has just clicked, then you can rocket through the unlocks and shift how the gameplay works.

The second loop is the crates. Ultimately there’s no real plot in Swordship beyond what was compressed into our intro, but that’s fine because this is about not getting blown up while stealing crates. In truth, you can dodge your way through the entire game, but crates are an accelerant to getting a high score and also a neat way to gain lives. You start with just one life, but you can bank crates in exchange for a life or a score boost. Securing these crates is tricky though, as most of them need to be collected and then delivered. You rarely stay in place for more than a few seconds in Swordship, but to collect a crate you’ll need to be in a vertical lane at the right time, and to deliver one you have to sit over a yellow marker for about a second… a second is a long time when the screen is covered in mines, lasers and missile markers.

Crates have other uses too, they can be detonated in a way where they hit everything on screen in a shocking blast. A lot of effort has gone into the visual styling, including some cool slow-down effects on narrow misses. The crate detonation is the thing that sticks with me most though because of the value of the crate that you’re surrendering for survival.

If you can deliver those crates though — and especially once you’ve unlocked the second ship which will give you extra lives for crates traded — then everything changes. Once I’d decided that A) crates aren’t worth death but B) I should aim to capture at least 50% of them, I quickly unlocked the second ship. Once I had that everything changed; I decided that I should trade out crates to try and keep my extra-life count up to around nine. With that in place, I dodged my way through to the tenth level with ease. That tenth level happened to be a deadly boss that quickly wiped me out. I was down, but all of a sudden I had a score that dwarfed my previous best, and all of a sudden I was playing Swordship like a different game.

Despite all that though, Swordship is about making stupid robots break each other apart. The biggest mistake that you can make is trying to think more than a couple of steps ahead. Thinking ahead, and dying through any of those sudden deaths can give you a bit of a surprise, and — certainly — I’m sure people might form a little resentment off of the back of that. Put that aside though and Swordship‘s quick pick-up-and-play style will surely make a friend of you.

Swordship launched on PC back in 2022 but is now available for current generation consoles — including Xbox One Series S, where it runs like a dream.

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