“Out of light, out of sight.”
The category of 2D side-scrolling games is as timeless and malleable as any genre in the video game industry. In the 1980s, established franchises such as Super Mario Bros. and Sonic were the proverbial foundations upon which game developers built and defined the category through time to become the addictive time sinks we know and love today. And now, with the recent explosion of mobile gaming, the brand of side-scrollers is witnessing a heartfelt renaissance. A renaissance which Curve Studios have capitalized on by porting their puzzle-based 2D platformer, Stealth Inc.: A Clone In The Dark – previously entitled Stealth Bastard on PC platforms – to PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita.
Before we delve into the details, let’s get one thing straight about Stealth Inc.: A Clone In The Dark. You are going to die, a lot. Set within the sinister establishment of PTi Industries, players are tasked with jumping, ducking and platforming their way through 80 levels spliced into 8 distinctively challenging stages, where the overall goal is quite simple: complete your test. Don’t let that sweeping generalization fool you, however, for there are ample reasons to pick up and play brimming beneath Stealth Inc’s retro aesthetic.
You control one of the seemingly infinite reticent clones that are manufactured by the disembodied corporate villain as test subjects. Nameless menials that are designed to undergo a series of phased tests which, in turn, act as the game’s overarching campaign. It’s as though Curve Studios took our beloved hero from Super Mario Bros. and plumped him down within a two-dimensional Shadow Moses. As such, levels are inventive and minimalistic by design and it’s a conscious decision on the studio’s part to construct the game in such a way that it implores you to utilize a trial and error method of play. The result? A brilliantly addictive and cerebral platformer that left me saying; “I’ll play one more level, then I’ll turn it off,” on more than one occasion.
After booting up the game and selecting the first stage, you’re immediately deployed into the fast-paced and unforgiving milieu of PTi Industries. In saying that, the introductory levels are simple yet intuitive, and communicate the game’s mechanics and over-arching objective without the distraction of a voiceover or spoken dialogue. While there is no narrative through-line to speak of – other than brief company notices that provide some humorous context at the end of each stage – the game does a good job of fleshing out its backstory though the environment. Clones that weren’t quite quick enough form the corpses that litter the dank factory – and serve as a poignant reminder of just how nasty those traps can be – and the granular detail on display through the blood splatters and overgrown weeds, give the factory a sense of brutal realism.
Adding to this immersive quality, the game would also attempt to break the fourth wall by dropping hints and teases in the rear environment. What’s more, Stealth Inc. uses this GLaDOS-esque A.I. to effectively subvert your expectations. Without ruining any of the game’s hidden mechanics, there are instances where a particular map will morph unexpectedly, and the wall writing will simply ‘laugh’ at your expense.
As you creep wearily through the bowels of PTi’s dystopian factory, a three-tiered detection meter is positioned at the bottom of the HUD at all times – which is also represented neatly through the clone’s goggles in a traffic light fashion. This will subsequently influence your method of approach. Once you are spotted by one of the wall-mounted cameras, for example, different areas of the confined surroundings will go into a lockdown, forcing you to retreat into the shadows to rethink your strategy.
Often you will have to bide your time within these rare havens of darkness while mapping your route of escape. Devoid of any armour or weapons to speak of, traversing these dank and gleefully sinister areas is no easy feat. In a world where being seen means instantaneous death, planning is paramount to overcoming your objective – particularly in the penultimate level of each stage, where the game really ramps up the pressure.
In order to unlock unseen areas of the larger maps, terminals are scattered throughout each level. Artificial beacons that provide the next objective while also serving as an in-game checkpoint, and although the game isn’t as harsh on the player as, say, Megaman or Castlevania, there is enough complexity in the level design to make you hell bent on overcoming them, no matter what the death toll. On the subject, there are a few standout levels in particular – my personal favourite was Shadow Runner from the third stage – that are so brilliantly crafted that they’ll have you gripping your controller (or Vita) as though you’re meandering through the deceitful environment yourself.
While some may label the game to be inaccessible at first, Stealth Inc. does eventually reward you for your commitment. Snarky wall sketchings are soon replaced by surprised exclamations, and as you prevail over the numerous booby traps lurking within any given level, there is a genuine feeling of accomplishment. Perhaps this is one of the game’s most remarkable executions. Rather than being tacked on for the sake of being notable, the abrupt difficulty curve is as challenging as it is rewarding.
This demanding curve culminates with each stage’s boss battle. These encounters take place in a confined, trap-ridden space, wherein the spherical Sentinel tracks the environment in search for, well, you. Imagine Tolkien’s Eye of Sauron only reappropriated for a tech-savvy milieu, resulting in a nervy game of cat and mouse – which makes the feeling of satisfaction after outsmarting the superior A.I. that little bit sweeter.
As you progress through Stealth Inc’s linear set-up, the game will toss a new mechanic into the mix in order to keep you on your toes – from ruthless robots to hyperactive sensors, Curve Studio’s bastard is choke full of ways to die – which gives the experience that extra spike of difficulty while still maintaining an overall feeling of engagement.
After you overcome a particular level, the inevitable scoring system will judge your actual progress. This system is broken down into three distinct categories: speed, death toll and the number of times you are spotted, which is calculated using a three-star rating system. The classification itself is made up of a familiar D to A grading, with the coveted ‘S’ rank acting as the holy grail that will unlock an extra bonus level at the end of a particular stage.
Much like other games within the genre – such as Sound Shapes or Jet Set Radio – Stealth Inc. allows users to automatically upload their mission stats to the PlayStation Network immediately after completing a level. Not only does this add a layer of competition to each individual accomplishment, it allows you to quantify your run time against friends, family and strangers within the game’s online community.
Stealth Inc. also implements the ever-popular Cross-Buy and Cross-Save feature, which also allows you to cloud sync your save in order to access it from the Vita and continue your precarious adventures on-the-go. From what I’ve experienced, the cloud sync is flawless. Simply hit square from the menu on PS3 and within a few seconds, your data will be uploaded to the server and be available to download to the Vita – or vice versa.
I divided my playtime as equally as possible between each of Sony’s platforms. While the PlayStation 3 reaps the benefits of a larger screen and, arguably, more precise controls, the nature of Stealth Inc. with its blistering pace and bite-sized – skill dependent, of course – levels allowed the experience to transcend seamlessly onto the Vita.
Other than a touch-enabled menu and the ability to navigate through the Level Editor using the front screen’s touch UI, the game doesn’t necessarily take full advantage of the handheld’s multitude of features. And frankly, that’s perfectly acceptable. Given the challenging nature of the game, if pointless gyroscope or other touch related attributes were to be shoehorned in they would detract from the overall experience.
The Level Editor is a nifty addition to the overall package and provides users with a plethora of content to cram into their own, self-created virtual reality. By including all of the technological nasties and obstacles from the main campaign, it’s a neat add-on that invites you to tap into your creative side. Still, without the ability to upload your level to the PlayStation Network – or indeed acquire other user-generated stages from the community – Stealth Inc’s stage creator feels a little half baked.
Also, the unlockable equipment; such as the decoy holograms, while providing some assistance to acquire those pesky helixes, still feel a little underdeveloped and never quite invoke the replay value that they should. For instance, you can only use the unlocked gear for the specific level in which you acquired it.
While it’s a ways away from Curve Studio’s serene and equally brilliant Thomas Was Alone, Stealth Inc. is a different beast altogether and one that benefits from its harsh and unforgiving set-up. Steeped in the rich DNA of the tactical espionage genre, the studio has moulded a sense of personality into Stealth Inc. – the charming platforms that would react to your proximity with their neon, pixelated eyes are a case in point – that prevents it from being, well, just another faceless clone.
This review is based on the PlayStation 3 version of the game, which was provided to us.
Featuring a steep but assailable learning curve and more mind-bending puzzles than you can shake your night vision goggles at, Curve Studio’s latest production is a humble title that puts the daring into indie darling.