With the name Stealth Bastard Deluxe, it's not too far-fetched to expect a game that rejects traditional stealth convention. After all, the subtitle Tactical Espionage Arsehole promises no less than an ironic mockery of the genre's frustrating quirks. The end result is not exactly revolutionary, but evolutionary. The formula for Stealth Bastard's clever puzzle chambers adds a unique look at stealth in games, but doesn't completely turn it's back on the minor annoyances of the genre. While this is both good and bad, the combination of precise controls, interesting stealth mechanics, and largely brilliant puzzles make Stealth Bastard Deluxe a refreshing puzzle platformer, despite it's sometimes tedious familiarity.
The game's 2D platforming feels like a menagerie of the precision and speed of Super Meat Boy, and some basic stealth elements from the Metal Gear Solid series. Being spotted by a patrol or camera usually results in instant death. You'll be manipulating the positioning of shadows, avoiding camera and patrol vision cones, and manipulating said patrols though lines of sight and later, sound. Your goggles indicate detection, following the traditional fully visible, partially visible, and not visible that's be used in so many stealth games before it. While the controls feel tight and responsive, there are times where needlessly hanging onto ledges, or the floaty jump mechanics are frustrating, and feel too slow for some of the twitch based segments.
It's good then, that those moments are few, because at it's heart, Stealth Bastard is a puzzle game. The goal is the same in every level; open the big door by pressing the smaller switches strewn across each stage. The basic progression of puzzles is similar to Portal 2, beginning with very basic light and shadow manipulation, and systematically adding one or two new elements to the sandbox across eight chapters. These range from beams of light that work as switches, loud floors that attract blind sound sensitive patrols, and even portals ripped straight from you-know-who. These elements rarely feel repetitive, and new rule sets are introduced right when they need to be. The game also does a great job at easing you into each mechanic, starting off fairly slow and cranking up the difficulty in the later stages of a chapter.
All of the game's components have one goal in mind; to find some way to brutally kill you. Stealth Bastard is a difficult game, and it has no qualms in letting you know it. The titular Bastard of the game isn't you the player, but the devilish level design and unforgiving tone that isn't afraid to throw your failure right back at you. You'll die alot, and while it's nowhere on the level of Super Meat Boy, some twitch platforming sections-especially towards the latter parts of the game-are fairly frustrating and will leave the level covered in your clone's blood. Luckily, checkpoints are used fairly often, and it's quite impressive that they rarely ever trap you into a situation where you are forced to restart the whole level.
The game projects messages on the walls, akin to a 2D version of what was seen in Splinter Cell: Conviction These messages are often fairly comedic, speaking in a condescending tone used in enough moderation to not feel outright insulting. In fact, some deaths feel hilarious, coming quickly after a checkpoint and a projected message on the wall that may mislead you. Shortly after that, you'll instantly respawn and get right back to it, fixing your prior mistake easily. It's a feeling that makes you feel idiotic, but it can get frustrating, especially when a level or two gets on your nerves.
Stealth Bastard has a fairly simple art style, and really doesn't take too many risks. It's use of light and shadows is fairly interesting, but oftentimes they obscure various traversal areas that should be obvious. It can be incredibly frustrating to distinguish where to go when you have various death traps barreling towards you, or to see a ceiling that could ruin a planned jump. The art design of each test chamber stays static throughout each level, and it's hard to really tell the difference between any of them. It's disappointing, since the game has such good use of light and contrast but doesn't take advantage of it. The graphics and art style are very clean, and serve the purpose of the game well, despite it's poor contrast between shadows and basic platforms.
Trial and error, for better or worse, is a classic staple of the stealth genre, and it's just one of the ways that the game embraces some plodding stealth mechanics that feel at odds with the mechanics. I often found myself waiting for patrols to pass, struggling with vision cones that can feel unpredictable. There are multiple puzzles that require you to lead an AI patrol to a certain spot, and it can be cumbersome to make sure you're seen without leading to instant death.
Through eight chapters the level design stays fairly consistent throughout, and doesn't really suffer from any plodding or poor sections. It stays fresh and rarely relies on repetition. The aforementioned art design however, can make the levels feel tiresome despite the gameplay being so creative and fresh. Unfortunately the boss fights suffer from both problems, being identical from a design and art standpoint. Even though new mechanics are introduced to deal with the boss levels, it's basic behavior is the same. They're a huge contrast with a game that stays so creative in design.
Those frustrations aren't enough to hold back the really fun moments that make you feel both smart and stealthy. Where Stealth Bastard feels most satisfying is when all three elements of the game mesh together perfectly. Planning out your solution to hitting a switch, running and jumping towards it at full speed, and barely escaping to the shadows before a sentry kills you is a satisfying feeling. Moments like those fulfill the promise of speedy stealth, and the game is littered with great segments like that, particularly in last chapter. The game lasts anywhere from 5-7 hours, and with extra unlockable levels, there's no doubt enough here to live up to the fairly low asking price. There's even a level editor where you can make all sorts of horrible death traps for people to play, and it's really quite simple to go and download another user's creation.
In a year that had both Mark of the Ninja and Dishonored, Stealth Bastard Deluxe manages to stand right with them. While it may embrace some of the stealth genre's conventions that it seems directly antithetical to, Stealth Bastard's fantastic level design, wit, and devious death traps result in a thoroughly unique and enjoyable take on the stealth genre.