Glorified flash games, purgatory, a novel form of self abuse. Call them what you will, but ultra-punishing 2D platformers are quickly becoming an emergent genre in their own right, with titles such as VVVVV and Super Meat Boy leading the vanguard. But despite what the waves of positive critical reception might lead you to think, they truly are the Marmite of gaming whatever way you look at it. You’re either a masochist who manages to thrive off the constant cruelty that these games dish out, or you’re
a rational human being the sort of person who yields after the first dozen or so times in a row your avatar shuffles off the mortal coil. Nevertheless, Stealth Bastard manages to widen that rather narrow target audience by asking for a bit less in terms of split-second twitch skills, and a lot more in puzzle solving and good old-fashioned patience.
If you only saw it at a glance though, I wouldn’t blame you for passing it over. These days It’s pretty hard for any Indi game that uses pixel art for its visuals to stand out from the crowd, especially when everyone and his dog has “referenced” that art form into oblivion the past couple of years. But Stealth Bastard tackles a unique and interesting element of the style that’s seldom utilised, if not ignored entirely: lighting. Rather than just having static illumination that’s already “drawn into” the background, this game has a fully fledged real-time lighting system that constantly changes in a mostly realistic and understandable way. It fills the gameworld full of broad shadows and gentle auras, creating environments that would have otherwise looked somewhat bland and generic. But it’s not all just to look pretty; correct usage of those shadows is integral to the titular Stealth Bastard not being burnt, crushed, vaporised, grinded or whatever else the current level’s manifold devices have in store for the little guy.
Patrolling guards and security cameras all need a clear line of sight on Mr Bastard before they can bring him to an untimely end, forcing you to sneak around in the (relatively) secure shadows if you literally want to stay in one piece. This allows for a much slower and far more accessible pace of play than you often see in similar games, one that rewards you (i.e. doesn’t murder you quite so quickly) for progressing slowly and carefully instead of just running in all guns a blazin’. You’re still expected to show a bit of platforming chops on-top of all this, but it never really descends into a Castlevania style pixel perfect jump challenge apocalypse like you might expect.
Your main objective on each level, other than staying alive for more than a few nanoseconds, is to activate a number of specific terminals in order to open up the level’s exit. Reaching this objective in turn requires all manner of secondary terminals to be flipped and couple of block puzzles to be solved, often with the looming threat of instantaneous death from any number of sources. As much as that might all sound rather formulaic on paper, Stealth Bastard’s continually evolving environment keeps things interesting by regularly revealing hidden passageways, completely rearranging the lighting scheme, spawning new hazards and other such potentially fatal tomfoolery. It gives each moment within Stealth Bastard an air of slightly unnerving unpredictability; a breath of fresh air in an age where, seemingly by law, every scripted event has to be neatly telegraphed to the player beforehand in order not to offend their delicate senses.
However, this in itself goes a long way to undo much of the game’s accessibility factor by requiring the player rely on a huge amount of trial and error in order to make even the slightest hint of progress. You never really know what kind of crazy shenanigans are about to unfold until they already have, at which point you have approximately zero seconds to figure it all out before you end up as a pile of meaty chunks beneath whatever hellish scenario was just set into motion. And then you have to do it again. And again, and again. Until you finally last long enough to trigger the next deathtrap and start the process all over again.
I can’t really say for sure whether such a recipe is “good” or “bad” game design; some people seriously dig games treating them like dirt, but for others it’s just going to generate major aggro even with Stealth Bastard’s forgiving pace. This isn’t exactly helped by the game’s checkpoint system. Admittedly the fact it even has checkpoints at all lowers the difficulty significantly over stuff like Super Meat Boy, however more often than not their rather haphazard placement sees you repeating the same menial tasks multiple times in order to get the the actual bit that was giving you strife.
Even if/when you do manage to succeed at whatever seemingly insurmountable task had been irking you, the game only offers 28 (21 not including semi-tutorials) levels and no narrative to speak of, therefor you have to REALLY want to go back and beat your best completion times in order to get the most out of the experience Stealth Bastard offers. You can add a bit of extra longevity by playing fan-made levels (or building your own with the fairly robust level editor) although rather predictably most users have elected to construct nearly impossible stages that require godly amounts of precision and timing that few players will be able to muster.
I don’t mean to understate how enjoyable this game can be; in spite of its simplistic mechanics it provides a diverse set of challenges that constantly keep you on your toes in a way that few modern games can. I do however wish to give ample warning that, man, this still be some pretty hardcore stuff goin’ on here. With that in mind, at a respectable price of ZERO Pounds Sterling/U.S Dollars it’s hard to argue that Stealth Bastard isn’t at least worth a casual peek. Even more so if you’ve found its cousins slightly beyond your skill level, but still want to get in on the action.
Stealth Bastard is currently available for PC and can be downloaded for free from the official site.