Feature: STEALTH BASTARD DELUXE expands on the original sneaky platformer with more levels, new gadgets and…boss fights? We go hands-on with the retail-bothering remake, interrogating creator and design director Jonathan Biddle along the way. This intro paragraph will now self-destruct.
It’s worth clarifying that ‘Stealth Bastard’ doesn’t refer to your lump-headed, nightvision-goggled avatar, who seems more like a Stealth Pretty Cool Guy. Curve Studios’ 2011 freeware hit is named as such because it’s both stealthy and utterly, absolutely, inarguably bastard hard.
Soon, we’ll get to be repeatedly murdered in Stealth Bastard Deluxe, which takes the original’s mix of Super Meat Boy-inspired twitch platforming and simple, immediate sneak ‘em up systems and multiplies. It’s a longer, deeper, more polished effort that’ll release as a paid-for title on Steam: for creator and design director Jonathan Biddle, however, it’s the game he’s always wanted to make.
“The free version of Stealth Bastard was only ever really a prototype of what we wanted to do with the game, so, while quite feature-filled, we always really wanted to do a lot more with it,” explains Biddle. “We’ve ramped up the campaign significantly, taking more time to introduce players to mechanics and trying to explore them more thoroughly than before in the level design. In the free version, we kind of screamed through the whole thing, and it got pretty difficult pretty quickly.”
“We’ve now got 8 chapters, each with 10 levels in. Each chapter focuses on a specific mechanic and theme, and each punctuates with a boss battle, against what we call a Sentinel. Two of the levels are secret, and have to be unlocked by completing the other eight levels with S Ranks, and finding all of the hidden secrets. We’ve added a lot of new mechanics to the game too, such as the concept of noise – sorely lacking from the original title – and new fiendish devices like the sliders.”
Like Stealth Bastard’s straightforward lighting mechanic, where your character is subject to only full, partial and zero visibility, Deluxe’s implementation of sound is simple and quintessentially game-y: certain sections of floor amplify footsteps, piquing the interest of nearby sentries and provoking (otherwise blind) drones into blasting a laser at the source of the din. In practice, it’s both a risky diversionary tactic and yet another way of getting gorily instakilled.
Still, the preview build I played only occasionally degenerated into rapid-fire failure – Deluxe isn’t easier than the original Bastard, but it eases you into its systems far more gracefully, which certainly helped my triple-digits death toll feel less like the game’s fault.
Dressed for success
Only flawless play, however, will unlock the new equipment bonuses. These toys – the camouflage suit, sonic decoy, holographic decoy, ‘Antilight’ and teleporter – can only be unlocked for a level by beating it with an A rank, and repeating the feat for every subsequent item. “Each piece,” Biddle says, “brings a new way to play: they’re like new toys in the sandbox, so there are multiple ways to play each of the 80 levels.” I ask him if being able to briefly turn invisible or teleport across the level will tone down Stealth Bastard’s famed difficulty; he believes otherwise.
“The game is designed around the player being vulnerable, and having only their cunning and speed to use against the environment. The equipment gives you more of an edge, but they’re really alternative ways to play. For example, the Antilight is a portable light destroyer – a moveable shadow. You can place it on the ground, or throw it, a la Flashback, and when it comes to a rest, it charges up before creating a void of light within which you can’t be seen.
So, by planning ahead and throwing the Antilight around, you can create new strategies with which to defeat the levels. So, it’s not necessarily easier. Times for levels completed with equipment are saved in their own leaderboards, so it doesn’t give you a competitive edge.”
Indeed, neither the camo suit nor holo decoy – the only bits of kit my pathetic skills could unlock – were particularly powerful. The invisibility granted by the former is short and requires charging up, while the decoy wasn’t much help when an alarm sounding often meant the room filling with deadly lasers. Interestingly, at least one gadget – the deployable teleporter – was once a major component of the free version, but was removed so that Biddle could “focus on something small and achievable.” It also returns in later stages as a static part of some especially tricksy level design.
Perhaps the strangest additions in Stealth Bastard Deluxe are the boss battles. Well, they’re not really battles: there’s no combat, no turning the tables with their own attacks. Get spotted by one of these gigantic, eerily featureless spheres and you’re toast. According to Biddle, they’re also the ultimate test of what you’ve learned in previous stages.