Stealth Bastard Review
Warning: This review contains detailed narrative spoilers but only moderate mechanical spoilers.
Stealth Bastard is chock full of surprises. Sure, there are surprises like the sudden appearance of robots or lasers or spikes or crushers, but that’s small potatoes compared to other things. For one, I feel the game has, up until now, been advertised deceptively. Developer Curve Studios (and the sites that have been regurgitating their words) suggests that Stealth Bastard is the unholy offspring of Metal Gear Solid and Super Meat Boy, but I think that the game is actually much more like a cross between Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell and Metanet Software’s N+. This, naturally, was surprising as the gameplay differences between the suggested mashup and the reality are quite significant.
In the MGS series, as its “Tactical Espionage Action” tagline implies, the emphasis leans more on action than on stealth. Sure, you can often use less-lethal tools and means to succeed, but there’s not much deterring you from gunning your way through missions if you like and, regardless of your choices, you’ll still necessarily have to fight (and possibly kill) bosses. On the other hand, the Splinter Cell series (especially earlier installments) tended to emphasize avoidance over confrontation. Stealth Bastard is much closer to Splinter Cell since your unnamed protagonist spends most of his time sneaking past or outmaneuvering foes and only rarely has the opportunity to rid of them entirely. (There’s also the fact that the protagonist’s glowing goggles look suspiciously similar to the Splinter Cell series’ iconic trifocal goggles.) Even then, he doesn’t have access to any kind of weaponry and instead has to rely on the crushing weight of rolling metal to get the job done. I hardly think you can call that “action-packed” in the sense that the comparison to MGS implies.
The mix-up on the stealth aspect is forgivable, but the same cannot be said for the platforming. Stealth Bastard is almost entirely unlike Super Meat Boy. Superficially, the gameplay of Super Meat Boy (their suggestion) and N+ (my suggestion) seems similar and one might not understand what I’m harping on about. After all, there’s a persistent timer, traps, and precision platforming, so how different can they be? Quite different, as it turns out. SMB’s platforming is all about precision and timing to a masochistic degree, while the platforming of Stealth Bastard and N+ is mostly about quick-yet-careful and coordinated movement. It may not seem like it when spelled out in text, but during play the difference is nearly as wide a gulf as the one between first person shooters and real-time strategy games even though one could claim they’re similar because they both include soldiers, guns, and explosives.
The comparison to Super Meat Boy (or even N+, if we’d go with that instead), alongside the “Tactical Espionage Arsehole” tagline and the “Bastard” half of the title, also suggests that Stealth Bastard falls into the category affectionately referred to as Platform Hell, but that’s off the mark as well. Considering that Stealth Bastard floats amongst the pool of indie PC games directed at the masocore audience, it’s actually quite remarkable just how not-difficult it really is; the game does have some challenge, but punishment is almost nonexistent. (For those unfamiliar with the distinction, see this and this.) That, by the way, is not an insult. I cannot stress the following enough: This is the best possible thing that a self-proclaimed masocore game developer can do. Various indie developers perceive modern games as “too easy”, but many just end up heavily emphasizing the bad half of difficulty by making their game ludicrously unforgiving. I am very happy to say that Stealth Bastard did not go down this route. Checkpoints are frequent and forgiving enough that I was only frustrated a few times during certain segments that required particular death-defying finesse. The game is even kind enough to save your timestamp whenever you pass by a checkpoint and restore it whenever you revive, which means that getting a good result is infinitely less frustrating since you don’t have to restart every single time you die.
If that wasn’t enough to convince you of the dissimilarities, I’ll toss in one other thing. In SMB, it’s usually very clear where you have to go, and all the challenge lies in manipulating your block of meat to actually get there. It’s all “how do I do it?” and no “what do I do?”. In N+, and especially in SB, there’s a lot more of the latter. There were numerous times where I had to just pause for moment in order to try to figure out what in the world I was supposed to do in order to progress.
And therein you discover the ever-present paradox of gameplay in Stealth Bastard. The ticking timer impels you to always keep on the move, but the numerous puzzles and deathtraps encourage you to slow down and think about what you’re doing. Personally, I felt that this made the game better by keeping you on your toes and infusing a bit of braininess where usual action-heavy fare doesn’t, but I could totally see how others would hate the constant mixed messages they receive. I know that Braid, a game I normally like, becomes loathsome once time trials are involved, and I can see the same issue cropping up for some players of Stealth Bastard.
Other subjective problems include occasional bouts of slowdown and a lack of a suicide button like in N/N+ (trust me, you’ll crave it if you’ve played either), but ultimately I have few complaints for this game. However, there is one big one that I have failed to address up until now. To add another item to the list of things that surprised me about this game, Stealth Bastard has a narrator that relays objectives and communicates with you by way of transient and translucent words made out of light (kind of like the similar system in Splinter Cell: Conviction, though there the lights were more like Sam’s internal narration whereas here the narration is more-likely-than-not entirely external). It’s a great system for imparting information while simultaneously still granting players the agency necessary for action sequences, and I found myself engrossed in what few scraps of story were provided to me. I was sucked into the story primarily because the narrator reminded me of the one in Loved, and consequently I found the “character” of the narrator quite mysterious, imposing, and interesting (especially whenever a single comment could be interpreted differently based on changing context). I’ve attached pictures of a few of my favorite quips from the narrator below.
Unfortunately, I was saddened to find out that there is no pay-off or really even any kind of conclusion to the story. There seemed to be so much tantalizing buildup towards some kind of grand finale like what you’d expect in many other games with solitary and seemingly omniscient and antagonistic overseers (e.g. Portal, SHIFT, K.O.L.M.), but instead there is nothing, and it took a sizable chunk out of my previously high opinion of the game.
Speaking of which, you may have noticed that I’ve been pussyfooting on a verdict. On one hand, the game is free, so whatever value you get it out of it (and I got a lot since the game is practically tailor-made to coincide with my interests in stealth that discourages combat, smooth and uncomplicated platforming, and electronica) is already an infinite return on investment. On the other hand, the last half of the game sapped my initial exuberance as I progressively realized that puzzles were getting more and more linear and that there probably wasn’t going to be a pay-off with the narrator or story since details on both were always delivered lean and piecemeal. If I were to evaluate it based off of remember how I felt during the first half of the game, I’d say that it’s equally exemplary as both a platformer and a stealth game and that I’m jealous that I didn’t finish my similar hobby project before Curve Studios finished theirs. But now that I’m through with the game, I can’t help but feel that the game lacks enough escalation and resolution and that, to put it colloquially, the developers fucked up on maintaining some kind of intangible aspect of what makes a good game good. In a way, it reminds me of LittleBIGPlanet 2, another platformer with the same problem. It looks very pretty and there are challenges and puzzles to complete, but completion of those tasks progressively fails to bring about satisfaction. You follow orders and are rewarded with the carrot that the developers have devised as a prize for you, but were it not for the carrot it’d be plain as day that the more convoluted and specific the orders get, the more they feel largely devoid of intrinsic engagement or a “fun factor”. You follow because you expect it to all be worth it in the end, but when it’s all over you just feel kind of hollow. That’s how Stealth Bastard made me feel. I got all wrapped up in and excited about it initially, but after completing the final level with nary a dénouement beyond a trivial “Thanks for Playing!” end screen, I wound up feeling somehow cheated, even if I didn’t pay a dime.