[one_third]Stick to the shadows, avoid the security cameras, and remember… robots don’t like you.[/one_third]
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A funny thing happened whilst we were working on the Sneaky Bastards scaffolding last year. A colleague of mine, whom I’d shown the site-in-progress to, came up to me and asked, “Dude, have you seen this new Stealth Bastard thing?”
The piercing gaze I returned, one part incredulity and two parts horror, told him someone was about to get shanked. You mean somebody has started a stealth gaming site? And they called it Stealth Bastard? But that’s pretty much our name! This can’t be happening!
“No, no,” he replied with an earnestness brought about by sudden sense of self-preservation. “It’s a game. A free game. You should check it out.”
The conversation bore something of a parallel with the experience of Stealth Bastard’s creator, Curve Studios Design Director, Jonathan Biddle. Having just revealed Explodemon – a platformer whose character propelled himself by exploding – to the world, he was shocked to see, a few hours later, another studio’s reveal of ‘Splosion Man – a platformer whose character propelled himself by exploding.
It was sheer coincidence, but no less of a bastard for Curve to deal with. Thankfully, we’re not in the same situation – Sneaky Bastards is still the sole home of stealth gaming, and Stealth Bastard is very much a part of it.
Bearing the tagline “Tactical Espionage Arsehole”, thoughts of Stealth Bastard immediately turn to the idea of a Merry Gear Solid-esque stealth parody. Stealth Bastard, however, is not this at all. Surprisingly, the game it evokes more than any other is Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. Both are sidescrolling platformers with a simple stealth element whereby shadows conceal the character. Both Abe and The Bastard (as I’m calling him, for lack of an actual name) are completely defenceless as they creep through incredibly hostile environments where blood coats the walls and skeletons litter the floors. And, in both games, the spontaneous and instantaneous nature of death does little to curb its graphic violence.
Like Oddworld, Stealth Bastard contains minimal actual stealth gameplay, but requires the same peripheral qualities of a full-fledged stealth game: planning, observation and patience. The game’s platforming nature throws in precise timing to this skillset – but it’s timing that is only required after observing the next set of obstacles from the safety of the shadows.
Whilst the shadows in Oddworld were static and binary, there is an elegant dynamic lighting system in Stealth Bastard that gives its otherwise low-fidelity graphics depth and colour. Floor switches will sometimes turn lights on and off, whilst some levels turn continually-roaming light sources into tricky obstacles. Later enemies will even project beams of light in front of them, forcing The Bastard to adapt to the dynamic lighting in a manner not unlike Garrett’s encounters with the torch-carrying guards patrolling the manors and mansions of Thief: Deadly Shadows.
Playing into this is a simple, three-level detection system: The Bastard is either completely concealed in shadow, partially visible or fully visible. This is smartly communicated by having his goggles change colour like a traffic light to convey his current state: green, amber or red. It’s an incredibly intelligent visualisation as it keeps eyes on The Bastard, rather than a light gem or visibility meter. And, with some of the split-second timing that Stealth Bastard requires, you really can’t afford to be looking anywhere else.
The game’s robotic enemies are dumb, but lethal. Like the environmental hazards, they exist as another obstacle for The Bastard to overcome on his way to the exit, but they can be toyed with to a certain degree. Purposefully appearing in their luminous vision cones when partially visible will cause them to investigate the sighting. From there, they can be led around and locked into other areas of the map, or just temporarily diverted as some puzzles require. Let them get too close, however, and The Bastard faces a hot laser death, whether he’s hiding in the shadows or not.
Early gameplay projects the possibility of some more complex stealth encounters to come. But that’s really not the case. After completing a good chunk of the bite-sized levels, it’s clear that Stealth Bastard is, above all, a puzzle-platformer with a slight stealth flavour. This is disappointing, because the brilliant dynamic lighting and fluid controls could easily form the basis of a thrilling stealth sidescroller. Unfortunately, stealth gameplay is gradually overshadowed by more complex platforming and timing puzzles, many of which throw sneaky curveballs at The Bastard for him to deal with once he quickly respawns. The walls might suddenly crush him, or a hidden laser will ignite, all whilst Oddworld-esque projections of frowny-faces light up the walls, along with omniscient textual taunts like “I’m just trying to help you”.
All of this gives way to the revelation that the player character is not the titular bastard at all; rather, the game itself is the bastard. There is a sinister entity underpinning the proceedings, whose guile and tenacity grapples with that of the player. Both attempt to constantly one-up each other in a Super Meat Boy-like dichotomy of frustration and elation. And behind it all, Curve Studios can be heard cackling maniacally.