80% Stealth, 90% Deluxe, 100% Bastard. Stealth Bastard Deluxe has the subtitle Tactical Espionage Arsehole and that may be all you need to know, but I’ll tell you wot I think anyway.
You’re a clone, so devoid of personality that it would be unfair to describe you as a bastard. The bastard, then, must be the game itself and what a glorious bastard it is.
Just when you think the deadly training courses have run out of tricks, touching a beam of light causes a block to speed across the floor, dragging you with it and bursting you against the wall like a blood pudding. Everything – walls, ceiling, cameras, laserbots – has been designed to destroy you and that’s where the stealth comes in.
At first, sticking to the shadows will keep you safe and, handily, the standard issue clone goggles strapped to your face react to light. A green glow indicates safety but when the goggles turn red, it’s generally only a matter of time before some horrible contraption turns your entire body into a fountain of blood.
Safety is a changeable concept though and as you travel through the facility, each new area introduces new ways to die. It’s around the time clanking, noisy floors are introduced, along with blind but audio-sensitive hunters, that Stealth Bastard Deluxe really does become a complete and total bastard.
It’s a puzzle game rather than a stealth adventure like Mark of the Ninja, although there are some similarities. Stealth Bastard does offer a variety of tools to find alternate solutions to its chambers, although none can be used on the first attempt during which the aim is to find a solution, which may well involve experimentation, but and structurally it’d be much better described as Super Meat Portal 2. Please don’t think about the phrase ‘meat portal’ for too long.
Placing it alongside McMillen’s murderous masochism and Valve’s tricksy comic narrative might seem like a sure way to put Stealth Bastard in the shade but that’s not the case at all – the similarities aren’t strong enough for Curve’s creation to seem like an imitator, but there’s enough common ground to make the comparisons useful.
Progressing through the game involves travelling through a facility, divided into distinct areas, each containing a series of tests. There’s no sing-song voice to mock and belittle, but somebody is watching and commenting, their words appearing on the walls, written in light. The taunting feedback seemed completely superfluous on the first few levels but as I painted the levels red, outwitted and killed over and over, the words became a weird source of comfort.
The first time I actually laughed, it was after I’d overcome a tortuous series of obstacles to reach a switch. I didn’t know what the switch would do and I didn’t know why I wanted to press it but it was bright, shiny and it didn’t want to kill me, which made it more attractive than anything else in the level. And then it did kill me by dropping a block on my head.
Now, I needed that block so pushing the button was the right thing to do, but I really should have stepped to one side rather than dumbly standing there and letting it squash me. For some reason I thought that the game might stop trying to kill me for a second and I had absolutely no basis for that stupid assumption. It had never stopped trying to kill me before, so why should it now?
I wasn’t laughing at my own stupidity – it doesn’t take a cleverly designed trap to make me do that - I was laughing because the bastard game knew I was dumb enough to take the bait and a message appeared on the wall to prove the point, a backlight to my bouncing bits and pieces. I can’t remember exactly what it said, but even though it was insulting I felt reassured by the message.
What it really said, between the lines, was “everybody does that. It’s OK.” It really is OK as well because you’ll never respawn more than a couple of steps away from where you died. Checkpoints are invisible but generous, which means there’s little actual risk involved in trying something silly. Fittingly, another message told me that “failing is learning”, which is basically the motto I’ve always lived by, much to the frustration of my university tutors.
The words, which add up to a familiar but entertaining story, are one of the main additions in this Deluxe version, based on the free prototype that both me and Alec were charmed by. There are also plenty of levels, an absolutely ludicrous number in fact because all of the user-created devilry made in the free version is available to download immediately in Steam, and the new tricks and traps introduced to the creation tools in this version should lead to a torrent of absolutely horrible death traps.
It doesn’t matter how many times I point out that this is a game in which every move is potentially deadly, I won’t have pointed it out enough. You will die because a camera spots you, you will die because a drone hears you and tracks you through the shadows, you will die because you touch a sensor beam that triggers a laser and slices you in half.
There’s variety in the puzzles as well as the deaths, and not just because robots are soon combining with teleporters and hovering hunters to spice things up. Having plenty of toys isn’t enough if the level design doesn’t use them intelligently but almost every level manages to perform that great puzzler process: you feel outsmarted, then you feel incredibly smart and then you recognise that it’s the designers who are the smartest smarty pants of all because they provided the challenge and enabled your triumph.
Curve’s original goal with Stealth Bastard was to create “a fast-paced, frenetic, one-step-away-from-chunky-death melange of sneaking, platforming, hacking and cursing” and they’ve delivered on that promise. Sure, the hacking is simply a case of watching a progress bar fill up while interacting with the exit-unlocking terminals, but those few seconds can be agonising. Lure a metal sentry away from its post and the hack seems to last forever as the horrible thing, which has sprouted a question mark as it searches, turns its light into every corner.
There isn’t a weak level in the package and the best come toward the end, as the elements introduced throughout are combined to form brain-twanging traps. An example: a sensor beam shuts off a deadly laser, located at knee height just below the sensor, which makes a corridor safe to traverse as long as the player doesn’t crouch, which cuts contact with the sensor and switches the laser back on. Unfortunately, moving on the floor is only silent when crawling and sentries lurk in the shadows above, ready to investigate any sound. Pools of darkness provide safety but there are computers in the corridor and, of course, there are lights shining above them. What to do?
That’s always the question. What to do? There are no inventory items, and no abilities apart from jumping, pushing and crawling, so the solution is always there, built into the level’s shape and the traps that are part of it. Robots want to murder you but understand their simple behaviour and they become unwitting allies. Discovering the way forward is almost always a gleeful ‘eureka’ moment.
I’m normally terrible at puzzle games but I’m bloody brilliant at hiding and sneaking, and I’m quite good at Stealth Bastard. It’s often tough, particularly during the excellent and sinister boss levels, but I was never more than twenty or so bloodsplosions away from making progress and the penalty for dying is almost non-existent, so even at its most difficult, Stealth Bastard isn’t punishing.
In an excellent year for the sneakier protagonist, Stealth Bastard Deluxe is a fine late entry. It’s a puzzler that uses light, sound and line of sight intelligently to complement rather than replace running, jumping and other standard platform fare. It also looks lovely and it’s immediately obvious what everything is for and how it works, which is hugely important when just about every element in a level factors into at least one stage of the solution. You’ll most likely never run out of chambers to play through either, with so many already available to download and a user-friendly level creator built into the game.
Stealth Bastard Deluxe is out now.