Originally released under the punchier moniker Stealth Bastard, the pun-tastic Stealth Inc.: A Clone in the Dark is a retooled, reskinned version touched up for the Playstation 3 and PS Vita. Combining the fast-paced, death-filled platforming of Super Meat Boy with stealth tropes purloined from Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell, Stealth Inc. pits a pintsize agent against trap-laden rooms. It’s not your usual stealth title either – patience isn’t much of a virtue when you’re being graded on the time it takes to complete each level. Hiding in the shadows is just the beginning of the solution in Stealth Inc. – levels soon become a matter of expert timing and lateral thinking, all with a sprinkling of sardonic humour throughout.
Super Meat Boy, a clear inspiration for Stealth Inc., gave rise to a whole new enthusiasm for fiendish platformers which tax the mind and the fingertips in equal measure. Moving away from anthropomorphic slabs of meat, Stealth Inc. straps Sam Fisher’s goggles to a clone a few pixels tall and sends him into the depths of a test facility. Each level has an intrinsic puzzle to be solved, with ‘furniture’ including buttons, lasers, spinning blades, robots and drones that combine to mind-boggling effect. Each level can take minutes to complete but tend to take much longer in practice thanks to the intricacy of the solution, with collectible devices located in hard-to-reach or hidden places as an extra incentive for thorough completionists.
Stealth Inc.’s artstyle retains the 2D plane of view but embellishes the basic geometry with nice touches that reference the stealth genre. In a nice twist on Splinter Cell: Conviction’s projected mission objectives, hints are displayed across portions of each level but offer sardonic criticism rather than helpful encouragement, biting in a GlaDOS-esque manner that suits the test chamber medium. “Nice job, cretin” says one such comment and the tone is much the same throughout – punishing, but tongue-in-cheek enough that it spurs you on to spite the omniscient observer. The play of light and shadow is inherently part of stealth games and it’s no different in Stealth Inc., despite this being a 2D platformer. Blocks occasionally move, casting helpful shadows in which to creep about and avoid the conical field-of-vision that enemies possess.
Each set of levels introduces a new gameplay mechanic, as well as a ‘boss fight’ (more like a particularly taxing puzzle) and two unlockable levels opened through finding devices or achieving ‘S’ ranks for swift completion. Whether it’s the simple addition of a weighted box and a switch or something a little more complicated (such as floors that alert enemies) there’s always a new mechanic to keep things interesting. Curve adds these incrementally, culminating in multi-dimensional problems involving everything from portals to trip-lasers.
Certain enemies will fire on sight so skulking in the shadows is a viable and regularly necessary means to an end, handily signposted thanks to the colour of your clone’s visor – red meaning fully visible and green indicating hidden. The enemies have easy to read behaviours as well as cones of vision that are far less forgiving than anything Solid Snake encountered. Other incidental details add character to each level – a different clone might be seen navigating tunnels on the fringe of the screen, for example. The chunky artstyle and reactive lighting are charming in a pragmatic sort of way, boiling each room down to the bare essentials required to solve the puzzle but never coming across as static or uninteresting.
New equipment can be unlocked through puzzle completion, offering different approaches and extending the replay value for those not fussed by shaving seconds off their best times. Adding the most to the replayability, Stealth Inc. includes a level editor that is easy to use and substantial in scope. Broken down into component parts – blocks, switches and doors, with enemies and other sentient machines – the levels can be as fiendish as you like, then shared for download on the internet adding almost infinte challenges to attack.
Ed McMullen and Tommy Refenes – co-creators of Super Meat Boy – said that the best platformers don’t tell players what to do but rather force them to work out the solution, thereby teaching them how to think rather than how to play. Stealth Inc. follows this fundamental doctrine - never holding your hand - and is all the better for this distant approach. The onscreen prompts are hilariously critical but the epiphany experienced when you solve the level surpasses any frustration at the lack of cheatsworthy hints. Exasperated players will be happy to know that three levels can be skipped per campaign – a wise move to compensate those who are stuck while not breaking the game with kindness.
Stealth Inc. is a perfect Vita title, the levels perfectly suited to a commute or lunch break. It’s equally suited to the PlayStation 3 – the added polish to the graphics more than makes up for the censoring of the original title and looks eye-popping on a large screen. If there were one thing missing, it’s a distinctive voice – Stealth Inc. is really a sum of many parts and suffers without one defining character. Still, Curve have produced an addictive and clever game with graphics that belie its complexity. As is befitting, Stealth Inc.: A Clone in the Dark snuck up on gamers and took everyone by surprise. With so many inspirations there’s bound to be something that most will relate to, be it a belittlingly wry attitude, spatial logic puzzles or simply Sam Fisher’s goggles (minus a lens). Try it, buy it and you’ll experience a charming puzzler that hides everything but its devious charm.