Thursday, August 1, 2013

REVIEW - Stealth Inc : A Clone in the Dark.

Stealth Inc: A Clone in the Dark is the PSN release of 2011's Stealth Bastard from Curve Studios, featuring all the bells and whistles of Stealth Bastard Deluxe: Tactical Espionage Arsehole.

It was renamed for Sony's family-friendly console.

A 2D stealth puzzle-platformer, it has a humble wealth of content with eighty levels to complete.  More puzzle than stealth, Stealth Inc demands absolute perfection from players - because it takes a great deal of joy in being a bit of a Bastard, and killing you instantly if you slip one toe out of place.

Let's dig in.

It's a strange little platformer, that's for sure.  It blends the absolute mercilessness and fraction-second timing requirements of Super Meat Boy with the basic tenets of a stealth title - but calling it Stealth-anything actually seems disingenuous, to me.  It's more of a straight puzzle-platformer than anything, but instead of the calm machinations and patient reflections of the genre's standards, Stealth Inc employs a slightly more hectic pace, with a rating system that requires absolute perfection if you want to achieve all the S-ranks and unlock all the levels, and a penchant for obliterating you instantly when you fail.

It's a game of pushing mildly sentient robotic blocks and jumping on (or avoiding) switches and surreptitiously manipulating the patrols of robotic sentries.  Each of its eight zones (ten levels each) introduce new mechanics to the mix, and while the basics of them are generally well-communicated, it likes to arrange or use them in a counter-intuitive manner - like motion-detection lasers that you need to step in to in one area in order to open up the way forward, but will instantly kill you in the next.

While its steadily-mounting challenge manages a decent gradient, it doesn't achieve the masterful communication of intention of, say, Rayman Origins.  Instead of observing a room and working out its solution - which sentient block needs to go on which switch, and how to get it there - there's no way to ever know what this switch or that motion detector does until you step on it.  And lo, one finds themselves simply throwing themselves against the room again and again, exploding in gouts of cartoony blood at each failure (instant restarts and decent checkpoints are appreciated) until, via the law of averages, you happen upon success.

After enough deaths and enough failures, one of your attempted routs will hit the bullseye and you'll slip past a watchful sentry or manipulate the room in your interests.  A checkpoint will save, and the cycle repeats itself.

For a puzzle-platformer, Stealth Inc very rarely offers the 'eureka moment'.  Instead, it's a bit like stumbling your way around a labyrinth with a blindfold on - keep your hand on the right wall, and eventually you'll find the path out.

"Stumbling" may be the wrong way to put it.  Stealth Inc's controls are spot-on, and the jumping, ledge-grabbing and running all feel perfectly fleet and responsive - but the play itself is a bit workmanlike.  There is no joy, here, in the running or the jumping - no kinetic rush - merely the satisfaction of knowing you won't have to replay this room again, and the comfort of assurance that the platforming mechanics won't let you down when the chips drop.

The game is capable - accomplished, even, through dedication to its own odd design (and I love the darkness and commentary of its very minimal narrative) - but aside from the catchy music, I can't admit to liking much about Stealth Inc.  In a LittleBigPlanet sort of way, it's a game I find easier to appreciate than enjoy.

Merely capable platforming, intricate and often-confusing objectives aside, I found Stealth Inc most troubling in its interpretation of the titular mechanic.

In Stealth Inc, stealth is merely a means of survival, and not a meaningful rout to player agency.  One never feels empowered when in the shadows in Stealth Inc - merely able to breathe for a moment before dashing out into the light.  But that's not stealth.

That's just hiding.

Stealth isn't merely about avoiding detection, and being obliterated if you fail.  It's about how maintained stealth gives the player greater choices, and a grand sense of power over the game world and their enemies.

You have no power, here.  You have no choice - each puzzle only has one answer, and one rout to completion.  Stealth Inc posits that the player choice stealth allows and sense of power that imparts are irrelevant to the experience - and I... disagree.

To offer another perspective, Curve Studios lead designer Sam Robinson has said
"For us, the best parts are the evasion, the thrill of outsmarting your enemies and the satisfaction of working out the ideal path."
"Working out the ideal path" would resonate a bit if any of the game's levels had more than one path.

Outsmarting and evading enemies is a delicious part of a stealth game's balanced breakfast, but the player agency it provides is muted, here, by the profoundly simple AI.  A bot will walk back and forth in a straight line as far as it can, and if it sees you, it kills you.  You can interact with it in only a single way - by finding a switch to hit or block to push that alters its available path.

Not the most exciting enemy to outwit.

Another sentry type will move ever-closer to you as long as you're in the light, and will freeze when you're in shadow.  A third type is blind - only appearing in areas with touch-sensitive floors that emit sound when you jump down on or run across them.

Overcoming these less-than-canny enemies is something far removed from a thrill.

Stealth Inc is capable, comfortable in its own ambition and at least consistent in its odd execution. I can't admit I ever had much fun with it, but for those interested in a puzzle-platformer, it offers a wealth of content and an extreme challenge for players interested in S-ranking all eighty levels.

And at just ten bucks for both the PS3 and Vita versions together, it ain't as tough on the wallet as it is on the player.

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