Developer: Aduge Studio
Forget Solid Snake or Sam Fisher, because in Qasir Al-Wasat, you are the ultimate stealth assassin. A nightmarish creature born in another world; a callous, venomous killer to whom humans are mere playthings, whose extraplanar origins render you completely invisible to mortals. Summoned to kill three men in a mysterious Middle-Eastern desert palace by a powerful sorcerer, you'll stalk the sumptuous halls, eavesdrop on its denizens and bring silent death to your hapless prey.
However, invisibility doesn't mean invulnerability. The palace guards are well-trained and disciplined, capable of killing you with a single sword thrust. They'll hunt you by the sounds of your footsteps, telltale ripples on the surface of water and the crimson bloodstains caking your claws. The palace brims with traps and deadly secrets... and worse, they know you're coming. You're the ultimate weapon, yet exquisitely fragile. A glass dagger.
Premise rarely get more exciting than this, and Qasir Al-Wasat has already found recognition in this year's IndieCade Red Carpet Award nominations. Featuring ravishing art direction and innovative sound design that actively factors into the tense gameplay, this subtle indie contender deserves to become a bona fide sleeper hit.
Action takes place from a traditional overhead perspective, wherein you'll stalk through a labyrinthine assortment of two-dimensional corridors and courtyards in search of your three targets using the arrow keys. The creature is only visible as a blurry translucent silhouette, which isn't anywhere near as awkward as you might imagine. As an invisible mythical beast, you can stand right in front of patrolling guards without being detected, leaving you free to explore the sprawling environments for keys, some clever puzzle solutions, optional secrets and conversations to eavesdrop on. It's difficult to adequately describe the voyeuristic thrill of being a fly on the wall, even before you quickly realise that you're capable of instantly killing anyone with a jab of a poisoned tail spike or razor-sharp claws.
Being completely invisible obviously threatens to massively stack the odds in the player's favour (if not massively overpower the experience), but Aduge has cleverly tipped the balance the other way. As already mentioned, the beast is incredibly, painfully fragile - one hit from any weapon will instantly kill your frail assassin - and the numerous guards are forewarned and forearmed. They'll aggressively investigate the sound of your footsteps, notice any telltale ripples as you move across water-covered surfaces and react appropriately. Killing an enemy usually results in their blood splattering over claws and muzzle, making the beast plainly visible at a distance and forcing you to locate water sources to clean it off. This tense and exhilarating focus on pure stealth encourages players to make use of a painstakingly slow sneak mode, cleverly waiting for the perfect moment to make a daring run for the next doorway or pick off a target of opportunity. With most ostensibly stealthy franchises increasingly favouring action over subtlety, Qasir Al-Wasat's gameplay comes as a compelling breath of fresh air.
The first time you head Qasir's 'soundtrack,' which initially appears to consist of random atonal honks, toots and warbles, you'd be forgiven for reaching for the mute button. It's never easy on the ears, but aggravation soon melts away to be replaced by genuine astonishment when you realise exactly what it represents. Each note and instrument corresponds to a single footstep of a specific guard, meaning that you can work out broadly how many enemies are in each environment and how active their patrol routes are through audio cues alone (to be replaced by blissful silence if they stand still or become your next target). Using clamorous musical tones rather than realistic sound effects hammers home that the shadow creature considers humans to be an aggravating nuisance, all noise and bluster, an infestation that needs to ignored or eradicated to create perfect, lonely silence.
This idea of disdain and dismissal also factors into the art design. Human characters are represented as cartoony caricatures, in jarring contrast to the sumptuously detailed backdrops that resemble dreamlike persian artworks. Not only does this uncomfortable and colourful juxtaposition make Qasir a breathtakingly unique visual treat,, but it helps to further strengthen the idea that you're viewing the world through the eyes of an utterly alien entity. Aduge Studio explains that "in Qasir, we test an approach for representing [the protagonist's] perception of our world through the graphics and sounds. Everything that he considers weaker than him are represented in a less realistic way." It's rare to see even the biggest studios dwell on the meaning behind their visuals and attempt to use them as mechanics rather than just window dressing.
A well-paced and thoughtful storyline underpins the campaign, steeped in Middle Eastern folklore and Islamic themes. Though inconsistently written (translated, I suspect) in places, the story behind the summoner, your targets and even the palace itself gradually comes into focus over the course of a few hours; challenging you to go out of your way to piece the bigger picture together through journal entries, eavesdropping and exploration. Indeed, there's far more at play and at stake than just the murder of three men.
I'm loathe to say more to avoid irrevocably spoiling the experience, but consider this: do the three targets deserve to die? Are you a weapon or a wielder? What else is going on? Your primary mission is in fact just an optional objective; one that results in credits and an epilogue yet leaves numerous questions unanswered. If you're willing to think outside the box and genuinely explore your surroundings, Qasir becomes a very different beast and a far longer proposition to boot.
For all of its strengths, Qasir Al-Wasat is far from perfect. Patchy AI sometimes makes unarmed NPCs run into walls when panicked and guards almost never follow you through doors. Most of the arenas aren't quite large or densely populated enough to fully make the most of the stealth mechanics, and worse, a lack of respawning guards in the early to mid-game makes it all too attractive to just rush an individual, retreat through a door, rinse off the blood and repeat until absolutely everyone is dead. I appreciate that this isn't exactly getting into the spirit of things, and some interesting additions to the formula later in the game helps to add to the tension (a respawning nemesis is a particular highlight), but some reinforcements would have definitely maintained a sense of being on the back foot.
Wait, did I just ask for infinitely respawning enemies? Hmm. I won't mark Qasir Al-Wasat down for that observation, though be aware that you should try to approach it in the right mindset. - Jon
Personal observations aside, Qasir Al-Wasat does show some rough edges. Boxy level geometry and a few bland textures (especially in courtyard areas) betray its humble roots, and an occasional alchemy minigame is hampered by some absolutely disgraceful controls. As a £6.49 debut offering from an independent studio, however, these criticisms pale into insignificance.
- Razor-sharp pure stealth mechanics
- Luxurious art direction and innovative sound design tie into gameplay, character and narrative
- Strong story encourages exploration - both into the palace and underlying themes
- Individual environments are slightly limited in terms of size and scope
- 'Munchkin' strategies will see you through the early game
- Some rough edges
The Short Version: This tense and effective indie stealth 'em up is brazenly unique, gorgeous to behold, thought-provoking and fiercely compelling. Aduge Studio's successful attempt to integrate gameplay and narrative with the art direction and audio elevates Qasir Al-Wasat into one of the most exciting games of summer 2012; an acquired taste, perhaps, but one well worth sampling.