Developer: Curve Studios
Stealth Bastard: Tactical Espionage Arsehole shocked the world when it released last year.
No, not because of the name. Nor its startling difficulty curve, with which the puzzle-platformer gleefully bullied its eager players. Instead, Curve Studios managed to cause a sensation by releasing a top-quality indie game for free with no strings attached.
Frankly, we all wanted to give them some money... and now we can thanks to this massively expanded Steam version. Stealth Bastard Deluxe effectively turns the free prototype into one of the most entertaining - if sadistic - indie games of the year.
In case you haven't already played Stealth Bastard (or instantly hit the link when you discovered how very free it is), we need to start by analysing its name. First things first, the 'stealth' bit. Curve Studios ruthlessly strimmed down the concept of stealth to its single fundamental truth - stay hidden or die - and applied it to a 2D platformer in the vein of Super Meat Boy. Playing as a cloned and slightly podgy clone operative, you'll run, jump and grab your way through some exceptionally tricky obstacle courses, but with the added dangers and opportunities that sneaking brings.
Platforming challenges (pits, spikes, lasers, you know the drill) go hand in hand with a dynamic shadow system. Light sources and level objects illuminate the stages and throw much of it into shadow, creating safe corridors to sneak through undetected. The range of industrial complexes and test chambers through which you'll sneak bristle with security cameras that will lock down levels or activate lasers if they spot you, robotic drones to harass you and turrets to puncture your paunchy clone. Manipulating scenery elements to create your own shadows becomes just as important as using split-second reflexes to stay in moving darkness or to hop between dark areas, creating a consistently tense, fresh and frequently punishing experience.
Once you realise that certain surfaces amplify the sound of your footsteps, things start to get really interesting.
Which is where the "bastard" part comes in. Rather than referring to the protagonist, the name warns players that the campaign is "b*stard hard" (an expression that our very own Brendan Griffiths uses on a regular basis), and it isn't lying. Stealth Bastard is properly retro-tough, the kind of experience that puts hairs on your chest and console controllers through your wall. Thankfully, however, the Deluxe version features a much more graceful challenge curve than the original. Coupled with the responsive mechanics and relatively generous checkpoints, not to mention the varied level design and exciting puzzles, you'll never feel cheated by death. Only motivated.
Stealth Bastard packs that 'one more go ' factor that typifies truly great platormers and puzzle games; delivering wholesome frustration rather than seething rage. You'll still swear, shout and occasionally cry from time to time, but critically, you'll keep on playing.
The Deluxe Edition ships with an extraordinary number of levels, most of which go far beyond the scope of the original free version in terms of the breadth of gameplay variety. New boss arenas challenge both your platforming and sneaking skills to the limit, providing tense face-offs against enormous sentinel security systems. The visuals are also looks fantastic and far more polished than its predecessor, using a relatively small number of big pixels to keep the player visually informed as well as entertained. For example, the colour of your visor shows how visible you are, while the detailed backgrounds don't distract from camera and turret vision cones. Messages from the mysterious management now appear on walls, giving you a chilling sense of how your operative fits into the big picture (and mocking you constantly).
Upon beating all stages in a particular zone, you can optionally replay them for high scores and quick completion times using unlockable equipment, such as the ability to turn invisible or deploy decoys. Gadgets can only be used on levels you've already completed, and only then if you've managed to beat a certain number of levels a certain number of times. It's a fun way of adding new mechanics to the formula without totally unbalancing the campaign, but the thrill of persistently gaining new abilities through hard work hasn't quite been realised.
Stealth Bastard also comes complete with a level editor, which will likely remain untouched by the majority of players. Though powerful and featuring literally every asset from the game, it's more than a little tricky to grasp despite a few handy shortcuts (pro tip: changing the width or radius of objects is mapped to the mousewheel). Some will take to it, however, and it's worth noting that every single one of the original Stealth Bastard's community levels are available to download at launch. By my count, that's over 1000. Not bad value for £6.99.
Having played the original Stealth Bastard, I must admit to feeling slightly disappointed that Curve Studios didn't manage to create a true 2D stealth 'em up in the vein of Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell... but after playing the Deluxe edition, I realised that what they've designed represents the stealth genre in its purest form. You won't find rail shooting sections or gunplay here: just light, shadow, sound and hiding to survive. It's an immense achievement from both a stealth and platforming perspective, so for £6.99, Stealth Bastard ought to be a no-brainer purchase for fans of either genre.
- Pure, satisfying stealth meets well-crafted puzzles and responsive platforming
- 80 campaign levels, level editor and 1000+ community downloads for £6.99
- 'Bastard hard'
- Intimidating level editor
The Short Version: Stealth Bastard Deluxe is a triumphant fusion of pure stealth, cerebral puzzling and technical platforming, making it an essential purchase for fans of both genres and one of the most exciting indie games of 2012.
If you enjoyed the original free version, it's high time you bought the deluxe edition and gave Curve Studios some richly-deserved money.