Tough as a Bastard
Home consoles were pretty much the final stop on the release schedule for Stealth Bastard: Tactical Espionage Arsehole; by the time it came to the PS3 and Vita, it had already seen versions on all manner of home computers and handhelds. With a slight name change to Stealth Inc, the game is now snugly part of my game collection, having been a free download with the PS Plus promotion. Despite not having really heard about it before, I was instantly excited to get going on this one! Mostly, I suspect, because of the simple, somewhat retro art style, though the promise of 80 levels of stealth puzzling sounded like a great deal of fun, too!
Having now made my way through the core game (the 64 critical path stages), two things have crystallized for me. For one, there is actually very little that I can think of to say about the gameplay. Not in a bad way; it’s not dull or one-sided, just pretty straight-forward and as advertised. As a clone trying to escape an (evil) corporation’s testing facilities, you run and jump your way through test chamber after test chamber, each forcing you to figure out a path to open the exit door and then proceed toward it. In that way, it’s very similar to Portal, though of course without the whole space-time-continuum thing. Along the way, you must hide in any and all available shadow, staying out of sight of the various robots, drones, cameras, and laser guns that will put an end to your clone existence instantly if they spot you. It combines these stealth and puzzle elements, and presents them in a 2D side-scrolling presentation with platforming controls.
The second thing I noticed, which during my playthrough I kept saying to myself over and over, is how well the individual puzzle rooms are designed! They aren’t my first choice in games, but I’ve played my share of puzzles, and I think the levels in Stealth Inc are among the best-designed ones I’ve ever played. The manner in which they incorporate stealthy shadows and dynamic light, hidden areas, environments which will often change multiple times as you progress through them, and just an array of sections requiring lightning-quick reflexes and on-the-fly thinking is very impressive. And even with all this, I still lost count of how many times I had to simply stop, put the controller down, and stare at the screen, scratching my head in puzzlement while I would try to figure out how to reach a switch or bypass an enemy (likely after having died on the very same enemy at least half a dozen times already).
The developers try to keep things interesting by segmenting the game into eight levels (each with seven regular stages, a boss stage, and two unlockable stages) and introducing a new type of obstacle in each level. The first level, for example, introduces the basics – light, shadow, lasers and cameras, while later levels mix things up by introducing laser light bridges or sound-activated drones into the mix.
And then there’s the boss battles. They aren’t actual “battles” as such; the developers stuck to the stealth/puzzle gameplay even in these stages. Boss showdowns involve a large, all-seeing “Eye of Mordor” type stationary laser turret in the middle of the chamber, while you have to run, jump, and climb in a circle all around it, constantly intent on avoiding its death stare while you scramble to unlock the exit. Suffice it to say I learned to dread the boss stages…
Though I had to chunk the game into smaller, palatable sections – I cleared about a world a day, taking somewhere between 45 to 90 minutes, if I had to guess), the game as a whole left a positive impression on me and I would be very interested to see more well thought out puzzles coming from Curve Studios. The one thing I’d like to see more of is something that also makes my heart get stuck into the game, instead of just my brain. It was very challenging and engaging on a mental level, but it didn’t have enough stick-with-it-ness to support longer playing sessions. As it was, it was a great way to stretch the mind for a few minutes a day, and certainly a good demonstration of even better things to come from the studio.