Platform: Steam for Windows

It’s officially 15 years this September since Metal Gear Solid was released for the original PlayStation. Before 1998, stealth in video games was generally reserved for the bedrooms of the alternative male, who instead of opting for the babe attracting machismo of popular Action games, favoured wits, sneaking and intelligence. Then it changed, and with titles such as Thief: The Dark Project and the later Splinter Cell, it was born into a major genre that grew, rather appropriately, in the shadow of the more popular FPS. While the latter genre has endured, many people have considered Stealth as a game form to have recently reached a saturation point. When 2010’s Splinter Cell: Conviction was released with fast paced Liam Neeson blockbuster smashing and an unforgivable absence of the innovative Spies Vs Mercs multiplayer, the dedicated went ape shit on forums everywhere.

PhotobucketBut I think it isn’t a case of saturation, but more that Stealth is undergoing an identity crisis similar to that of an adolescent. It took its first baby steps into the big money game world with Metal Gear Solid in ‘98, but then 13 years into its life cycle, Splinter Cell: Conviction suddenly showed the genre getting all shy and unsure like a teenager. Am I Stealth or Action? Who do I want to impress? Does Sam Fisher’s hair style look right? These are all questions that it couldn’t quite answer, making the rest of us slightly unsettled with its apparent paranoia. Gamers like to be given a good time, not tell the game how to, after all.

Never fear though, because in times of crisis, the indie game somehow manages to find a way for the rest of us. Earlier in the previous decade, when everyone was all bogged down with that silly argument about games being art, Jonathan Blow came along with Braid and blew us all a new one. Today, games like Mark of the Ninja and Stealth Bastard Deluxe have successfully realigned our sense of stealth by reminding us why we loved the genre so much in the first place. However, Stealth Bastard Deluxe, while clearly acknowledging its heritage with its abundance of gadgetry and MGS referencing subtitle of ‘Tactical Espionage Arsehole’ is actually more forward thinking than you might realise. Placed in control of an unnamed clone in an illicit factory of some unknown, probably inhumane agency, the player must escape by running, jumping and sneaking through various sectors. Business as usual you’re probably thinking, but as a side-scroller it becomes something closer to a platforming puzzler, rather than stealth action.

PhotobucketEach level is specifically designed to be solved in a certain way, with active switches, doors, security cameras and robot sentries each providing a particular use and a particular danger. In some circumstances, there might be an opportunity to jump rather than run, or take a different angle, but otherwise it must be solved with the tools at hand, rather than use the tools for outlandish experimentation. This is not meant negatively though, as this is where the excellence of Stealth Bastard Deluxe is found. Taking a leaf out of the book of Portal, it has a brain challenging quality of the best kind, where the curious benefit most. By jumping, pressing, exploding and throwing "cloney" into a bloody meat grinder, the player begins to understand what they have to do to progress in the level. It’s often full of surprises too, where a harmless switch will suddenly bring the level closing in. The addition of a boss level for each sector also provides a different flavour, where the ominous and all-seeing sentry at the centre of the stage is a constant threat to any movement and exploration. Completing a level also unlocks new gadgets for use in repeat plays, which does allow a different way to complete a certain stage. However, while they can aid in the pursuit of mucking about, the gadgets never feel necessary or that exciting.

Again, much like Portal, Stealth Bastard Deluxe attempts to create a distinct personality to the game. The controlled clone is almost cute, and some kind of computer taunts the player with written messages on the walls of the factory that either warn, congratulate or emotionally bully you depending on how successful you are. It’s a simple aesthetic, as you’d expect from an indie title, but it works for the style of game, and the soundtrack moves from bold strings during boss fights to quirky electronic pieces during levels. Falling into deadly lasers also makes a fantastic gutting sound that nicely signifies the newly created pool of blood, bones and organs found where your clone used to be.

PhotobucketStealth Bastard Deluxe can be summed up as a satisfying puzzle piece that takes the form of a Stealth game. Many levels do require the usual shadow hopping and timing that is a trademark of the genre, but at the same time it’s an agile platformer in the style of Fez. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but it’s a tightly made, well produced and charming title with a great sense of humour. Overcoming challenges, beating rival level complete times online and building your own levels to share certainly make it feel like a very complete and accomplished experience. The forthcoming Splinter Cell: Blacklist, in spite of its clear action element, is promising all the stealthy stealth the fans of the genre want. Perhaps now, after a brief period of insecurity the Stealth genre has finally decided to grow up and mature into something that doesn’t sacrifice its heritage, but likewise isn’t afraid to work in other ways. Stealth Bastard Deluxe looks like it hopes this is the case.