You wouldn’t be alone in immediately thinking of Super Meat Boy when looking at Stealth Bastard Deluxe. The two games have a lot in common, including their origin story. Much like how Super Meat Boy began life as the plain old Meat Boy on Newgrounds, Stealth Bastard Deluxe started out as just Stealth Bastard. Tired of the molasses pace of games like Metal Gear Solid, Curve Studios decided to combine the frantic platforming of Super Meat Boy with the neon green goggles of Splinter Cell.
It worked, with people emerging from cardboard boxes all across the internet to download the title and subject themselves to even more bloody dismemberment in the hunt for the almighty high score. Now, in a manner very similar to its cantankerous predecessor, Stealth Bastard has picked up another word and launched on Steam. New levels and a rebuilt UI round out the new and improved package, but is it enough to justify your hard-earned dollars?
The story, as much as is necessary to justify the carnage, is blissfully simple. You play a clone, one of many, whose purpose is simply to escape. Death, while swift and inevitable, means little when there’s an entire army of you waiting in tubes, eager to throw themselves at whatever challenge claimed your life. The faceless corporation that birthed you (and will kill you) has no name or purpose beyond mutilation and execution. Behind it all exists a sarcastic narrator that would give glaDOS a run for her arbitrary units of currency, constantly flashing patronizing messages that either highlight your failures or begrudgingly acknowledge your successes. The outright hilarity of some of them goes a long way to undercutting the sense of bitter defeat that accompanies death, especially in the earlier levels.
Each level has the same goal of flipping a series of switches that unlocks the exit, then actually making it there. Between you and the switches are a wide range of perils and pitfalls that you’ve got to manipulate or avoid. Some of the things that will end your brief little life include: razor blades, laser beams, patrolling robot sentries, giant mechanical eyes, floors and ceilings (especially when they collide), and your own stupidity.
Thrust into this situation without any weapons or armor, all you’ve got to work with is your innate aptitude to be sneaky. Light and dark play a major role in Stealth Bastard Deluxe, as being hidden is often the only path to survival. Your goggles serve as an indicator of your visibility, with green meaning practically invisible, orange suggesting caution, and red often being shortly followed by explosive doom. Enemies have clearly labeled vision arcs, but you’ll very rarely find yourself sitting in place waiting for a patrol to slowly meander by. Stealth Bastard Deluxe is all about keeping up a rapid pace. More often than not the answer to any problem lies in swift action rather than careful consideration, owing to the game’s platforming heritage.
When the game does slow down, it’s only to solve one of the puzzles at its core. Despite citing Super Meat Boy as a direct influence, Stealth Bastard Deluxe really seems to draw more heavily from games like Portal in its puzzle design. In any given level there are a succession of tasks between you and the exit. The people at Curve go beyond just mimicry though, as they manage to capture the same wondrous sense of simplicity that made Portal great. By greatly limiting the ways to interact with the world, the puzzles never get overwhelming. The solutions are always just about manipulating the world around you instead of increasingly complex mechanics. A generous checkpoint system, which saves your progress after major events inside each level, turns each grisly explosion into a learning experience instead of a reason to pitch your controller across the room.
Controlling your clone is wonderfully simple, with a basic toolset that only includes jumping, sneaking, pushing, and hanging on edges. Every puzzle in the game is solved using some combination of those things, leaving very little room for the game to get hung up on complex mechanics or odd abilities. You won’t be throwing down the controller because your triple-jump-into-a-charge went the wrong way, or because your super bomb didn’t charge fast enough. You either make the leap or you don’t. The entire game has a very solid feel, all the moving parts carrying real weight. Jumps go through predictably, without the floatiness that plagues games like Dustforce or even Super Meat Boy.
One of the major goodies included in the game is a full-featured level editor that lets you craft your own deathtrap laden test chambers and then upload them for others to play and rate. While the tools are exceptionally robust, allowing you to recreate any of the mechanics featured in the game, it’s a little intimidating at first. Backgrounds need to be hand crafted using tilesets, which gives designers a wonderful level of control, but more casual players might be turned off by the amount of time necessary to create even the most basic stage. It’s a welcome feature, especially alongside the well integrated online leaderboards.
Based on the Game Maker 8 engine, Stealth Bastard Deluxe falls victim to a variety of technical issues inherent in the system. Initially it took me a ridiculous amount of time to even get the game working due to the fact that GM8 uses the now unsupported DirectX 8. It’s a recognized issue with the software that I eventually managed to solve with random setting toggling. Additionally, it seems as though GM8 is a terrible memory hog, potentially leading to a slow down while the game is running. A restart would solve the problem, but having to exit out to the desktop after every few levels can be a chore.
In response to this, the developer has been incredibly active on the Steam forums and Twitter, working to solve problems as they arise. Whether or not these kinds of bugs, especially in the case of indie games that can’t afford the massive QA teams that AAA studios can, should be taken into consideration is something that is a much bigger issue than I want to tackle in this review. That said, the rapid and targeted response by the developer has helped squash a lot of the kinds of bugs that plague PC development.
Stealth Bastard Deluxe isn’t an exceptionally long game right out the gate, lasting anywhere from 4-8 hours depending on how quickly you can grasp the game’s unique logic. The meat of the game lay in shaving time off your records and climbing the leaderboards. Beating levels multiple times also unlocks different suits that provide you with on-demand camouflage and teleportation among other interesting abilities, which encourages players to go through and try to improve their times. User-created content and the level editor also add time and value to the game, but it’s yet to be seen how robust the community will be.
Despite some potentially crippling technical issues, Stealth Bastard Deluxe is a solid attempt at mixing the tension of the stealth genre with the puzzles and humor of Portal and the precision platforming of Super Meat Boy. As it stands, it’s hard to recommend the game without a serious caveat: give the original free version a try to see if your system is willing to play nice with GM8. If it does, you’ll be treated to a game with a wonderful sense of humor and delightfully tight controls and puzzles.