Stealth Inc: A Clone in the Dark Review
I never would’ve thought to combine stealth and platforming. From a logical standpoint, it doesn’t make much sense. After all, platforming is often about nonstop gameplay that relies heavily upon fast reflexes and lots of practice. Stealth is about patience, timing and tact. So how can the two possibly coexist? Well, developer Curve Studios has found a way and the result is pretty freakin’ awesome. The two distinct gameplay elements counter each other in a positive, unique way and the result is both innovative and downright special.
The graphics aren’t exactly retro but they embrace a certain old-school visual style, which is reminiscent of the days when 2D platformers dominated the industry. The new high-definition graphical display isn’t rife with vibrant color and admittedly, there isn’t a lot of palette diversity. But that’s okay, because darkness is your friend in the world of stealth and besides, don’t forget that you’re a drone. You don’t have a personality and fittingly, neither does your environment. There is, however, plenty of detail and the effects accentuate the action with understated flair.
“Understated” is a perfect word to describe the audio, by the way. And again, that’s fitting considering the nature of the game. The soundtrack is actually great, because it’s not intrusive and it matches the odd mix of urgency and stealth. It has this charming, tongue-in-cheek quality, too, which I happen to enjoy. Much like the visual effects, the sound effects give the experience a little extra zing. Getting zapped by a laser is comically shocking, for example, and the score always seems to know its role. In other words, the developers understood that the soundtrack needed to be both subtle and high-quality.
The premise is simple— you awaken as a nameless drone with Sam Fisher-esque night vision goggles, and you must find a way to escape your high-tech prison. There are 80 unique levels to attempt and eventually conquer, and some of those levels are ingeniously designed. The presentation is fantastic as the sheer amount of effort expended to create an engaging, addictive, and challenging yet accessible game is notable. Shadows dominate the area and you must take advantage of each to survive. At the same time, because they mixed in a faster-paced platforming mechanic, the fusion of those elements is endlessly fun.
It’s a really intriguing style and I haven’t made such a statement in some time. To add to the creepy décor, there’s an anonymous watcher who seems to taunt you everywhere you go. You’ll see mocking jibes written on walls and some of them are just plain insulting. Strangely enough, though, the farther you go, the more that watcher appears to be quietly optimistic about your escape. Speaking of which, you may come across other drones who will assist you in your desperate quest, which adds another dimension to the gameplay. You will also unlock a variety of gadgets that will become invaluable in certain situations.
The checkpoints are sprinkled liberally throughout your adventure and that’s a good thing, because you will die frequently. But those deaths never feel cheap or unwarranted. They almost always occur because you weren’t careful enough and didn’t give enough attention to the challenge. Although there is the very solid and reliable platforming mechanic, the stealth trademarks are still here: Observation, timing and execution. At first, it’s relatively easy. There are a few switches that require a block and wandering robotic guards that aren’t very bright. But then you come across laser traps and warp pads that remind one of Portal.
That’s when things really start to grab you. The more you play, the more you appreciate the escalating difficulty and innovative design concepts. You are also given various screen prompts that don’t mar the experience; these prompts tell you the light level (i.e., how visible you are) and the amount of noise you’re making. As for visibility, you need only look at the color of your drone’s goggles to be sure. That’s an example of a great development idea, because it’s easy to access, doesn’t infringe on the streamlined nature of the gameplay, and is not about hand-holding. It’s just a very useful, nicely implemented and subtle feature.
The control isn’t 100% perfect, as moving quickly can feel a little awkward at times. It also seems like the difficulty is all over the place; one minute you’ll be breezing through a level with ease and the next, you’ll be staring in consternation and going, “Wait, what?” This gives the gameplay a somewhat disconcerting, disjointed feeling. I’m also not sure about the “build your own level” mode, because while it is a powerful building system, it sort of feels out of place. I suppose some may utilize it but I found it almost unnecessary and not all that rewarding. It’s not that I don’t have a creative mind, it’s just that I found it underwhelming.
For the most part, though, Stealth Inc: A Clone in the Dark is wicked fun. We’re starting to see more interesting and even daring experiments in the digital world; as I said, I wouldn’t have expected a combination of stealth and platforming to work out so well. But with lots of beautifully designed levels, some very cool gadgets (which can’t be used during the first play-through, unfortunately), and solid control throughout, there’s no doubt that you’ll be entertained. Toss in the online leaderboards, and you might soon find yourself playing for hours on end.
And unlike me, you might really get into building levels from scratch. Given everything that the game offers – first and foremost, its original style and gameplay – I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t recommend it. I suppose if you really want your stealth games to be more advanced and focus entirely on the art of stealth (i.e., Thief, Splinter Cell, etc.), and you’ve always hated platforming, this isn’t for you. But other than that caveat, I’d imagine that a great many gamers with all kinds of personal preferences will find Stealth Inc to be a worthy investment. And don’t forget that Cross Buy is supported!
The Good: Great presentation and style. Solid control throughout. Excellent design and fusing of gameplay concepts. Challenging yet very rewarding. Really cool and imaginative gadgets.
The Bad: Speedy control isn’t always perfect. Erratic difficulty.
The Ugly: “Nothing here that would qualify as full-on ‘ugly.’”
7/29/2013 Ben Dutka