There’s a danger that I’m about to embark on a sickening display of gushing praise. I’ll counteract that by starting with a criticism: I don’t like the name. That may come as a surprise, as both the title and it’s Metal Gear Solid riffing tagline “Tactical Espionage Arsehole” have been widely praised for their mixture of description and attention grabbing swear-words.
All fine and well, but as someone who obsesses over minute details, I find myself constantly asking, “why is the protagonist of this game such a bastard?” I spent the length of the four chapters looking for signs of him being a jerk, but to no avail. Perhaps he’s a Holocaust denier. There’s just no way to be sure.
Developer Update: “[The name] is a reference to the game itself; it contains stealth and is bastard hard. Arsehole references the game’s attitude to you.”
Right, with that out of the way, I can now safely explain why this is a wonderful game that you should all play.
Tagline aside, this free 2D puzzle-platformer has a few more Metal Gear reference points lurking within. Enemy vision cones, hovering drones and the iconic punctuation-based alert system all point to the inspiration at work. But where that series was happy to include a seemingly endless cutscene in which a man reminisces about the time he pissed his pants, Stealth Bastard is laser-focused. For a start, there’s no story at all. The only other characters you’ll meet are robots and security drones – with the only interaction they’re interested in being the one that leaves you in bloody chunks.
It’s all designed to be as pacey as possible, with levels generally lasting a couple of minutes each. The only goal is to hack enough security terminals to open a door to progress to the next level. Are you infiltrating deeper into the building or attempting to escape? Who knows? That’s not really the point. Just flip switches, move crates and hold the up key over security terminals, all the while worrying whether you’ve left enough time to avoid being killed by whatever thing is inevitably trying to kill you.
With no cheap tricks to fall back on, level design is king and there’s a great amount of variety and personality to each challenge. Naturally the majority are about avoiding detection, but only some put the stealth mechanics front-and-centre. Others concentrate more on platforming or puzzles. One particularly memorable second chapter level resembles a Rube-Goldberg device that attempts to kill you with a clockwork indifference. The constant introduction of new ideas, or escalations of mechanics you’ve previously learned, will keep your interest throughout.
Your visibility is dependant on the light levels around you, and so you’ll often find yourself in that stealth sweet spot of perceiving light as the enemy. In shadow you’re fully invisible, able to walk past security cameras and drones with impunity. As you move into the light you become partially then fully visible and, because you have no means of defense beyond hiding, fully exposed as well. Push a crate to a switch and the shadow it casts will shift in response, reducing your cover usually before you’ve reached the destination. You’ll also come across security drones with light attachments that leave you in an increasingly shrinking safe zone, desperately hoping they don’t get any nearer. That’s how stealth should work, and Stealth Bastard captures the tension beautifully.
Not only does the game both look and sound fantastic (the urgent chiptune soundtrack particularly worthy of praise), but the levels themselves have a kinetic flow that reacts to your actions. Challenges can appear to be deceptively simple, until a switch doesn’t do what you expect and a whole new area is revealed. There’s a useful puzzle application here, in that you’re never left feeling overwhelmed. As big as a level may become, it simply requires systematically working through each section. For each security terminal the game will block out what isn’t important, leaving you to focus on each objective before moving on to the next. What at first can feel sprawling becomes entirely manageable.
Which isn’t to say the game is easy. In fact, it absolutely delights in killing you. Lasers will fry you, blocks will crush you, saw blades will – well, use some imagination. The most sadistic of these are usually accompanied with a few words of text, which are projected on walls throughout the game to provide both tutorial and sarcastic encouragement. But it always forewarns its deadly surprises with blood-stained walls and piles of bones, hints that those that came before were not so lucky. Plus, generous checkpoint placement ensures that death is really only a minor inconvenience.
It’s too short – a completely unfair thing to say about a game that’s free, that I only mention because I was left wanting more. Fortunately there’s a full level editor available, with new community levels available to download within the game. And the community has risen to the challenge, with over 200 levels available to date. While more than a few include the word “Test” in the name, sort by rating and you’ll find plenty of challenges to rival the main campaign.
All of which makes not only for a great game, but also an exciting prospect. If upcoming 2D infiltration games like Size Five Games’ The Swindle and Tom Francis’ Gunpoint can match Stealth Bastard in terms of quality, it’ll be good news for stealth bastards everywhere.