Curve Studios’ PC indie hit, Stealth Bastard: Tactical Espionage Arsehole, was born when its creators asked a very simple question: Why are stealth games always so slow? Quite possibly, the reason was a lack of imagination, as Stealth Bastard’s fast-paced blend of stealth and puzzles proved incredibly popular as a free download through Steam, eventually prompting the release of a Deluxe version complete with a sharper, redefined aesthetic and a handful of new levels.
Now the same deluxe version has been ported over to the Vita with the more family-friendly (but less impactful) title of Stealth Inc: A Clone in the Dark, and feels totally, utterly at home.
The core game remains exactly the same. You take control of a cute little clone who is undergoing a series of sadistic tests under the watchful eye of the PTI corporation. Each of the 80+ tests (read: levels) are presented as physical and environmental puzzles wherein you must avoid a sudden and gruesome death by evading PTI’s various security measures or, on occasion, turning them against your enemies.
Each level, you’re presented with a side-on view of an area filled with turrets, robotic sentries, laser beams, teleporters or sensor switches (among other things), and must make it from the entrance to the exit alive, having hacked at least one computer to open the way out. Sometimes it will be as simple as crouching under a laser sensor and hiding in the shadows as a security camera sweeps the area below it (when your goggles are red, you’re visible, but – as the game’s voiceless narrator displays on one of the walls -goggles of green cannot be seen); other times you might be presented with a daunting nightmare of laser beams and teleporters and pressure switches that seems, at first glance, insurmountable.
At least for the first time through a level, your diminutive clone has no weapons or tools of any kind, and can only jump (and cling to ledges), run, duck and activate switches. You’re scored based on time, deaths and detections and so in order to earn the elusive S-Rank in every level you’ll need to think fast, learn the behaviour of PTI’s security units and, every now and then, grit your teeth and just leg it.
The level design is often frustratingly precise, and there are many moments where you’re trying to outrun a deadly laser or moving platform and even a split second’s hesitation will see you squished or exploded. That being the case, success is its own reward, and nailing a high score when every millisecond counts is repeatedly exhilarating. Stealth Inc. is the type of game that you’ll want to replay again and again, shaving nanoseconds off your record with every attempt.
As you achieve certain ranks in particular levels you’ll unlock new suits for your clone, such as a camouflage outfit that renders you invisible for a few precious seconds or a decoy projector that fools security systems. Thankfully, each level has separate leaderboards for completion times with these tools enabled, so you’re always on an even playing field.
Aesthetically-speaking, Stealth Inc. looks gorgeous on the Vita’s smaller screen. The use of lighting is great, obviously, but the environments have a grim, industrial look to them that reinforces the Portal-esque theme of callous and inhumane science. The messages that appear on the walls in various levels are dry and often cruel, delivered in a detached manner until you screw up, at which point they become sarcastic and personal. They range from “Robots Don’t Like You” to “Duck, Cretin” and are occasionally hilarious and rarely encouraging. Some players will be put off by the repetitive music, but the electronic tone has all the elements of cheesy espionage thrillers that you’d expect and works wonderfully with the art style to set the tone.
The only complaints are minor, such as a frustrating wait for several seconds after every level while the leaderboards are updated, or the occasional sudden and brutal difficulty spike that can see you stuck for half an hour on a two-minute level. Thankfully, there is an option to skip particularly tough levels, but they’re limited and mean you can’t unlock the secret level in each zone that becomes available when you achieve S-Rank in all the stages.
Stealth Inc. feels like a superb fit for Sony’s handheld, presenting a huge amount of bite-sized fast-paced levels that will genuinely tax you again and again without being unfairly difficult (although some of the latter stages will have you biting clean through your own knuckle until you spot the solution that was there all along). A great deal of it relies on trial and error though, or messing around in a “dry run” of a level until you have cracked it before you hop back in to earn yourself a leaderboard ranking.
VERDICT: A Clone in the Dark follows the trend recently set by Thomas Was Alone, Hotline Miami and Velocity Ultra of excellent, tightly-made, addictive indie games on the Vita and simply feels as though it was made for the handheld. Stealth Inc: A Clone in the Dark is a belter: occasionally frustrating and sometimes incredibly demanding, but always enjoyable and well-crafted throughout. An essential purchase for any Vita owner who likes a challenge, with the (now) standard added bonus of cloud saving across both Vita and PS3.
VERY GOOD. An 8/10 is only awarded to a game we consider truly worthy of your hard-earned cash. This game is only held back by a smattering of minor or middling issues and comes highly recommended.