I’ve been meaning to play Curve Studios’ Explodemon! ever since it was ported to PC, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. I did, however, find time to play their more recent Stealth Bastard, which has the advantage of being completely free. With the tagline “Tactical Espionage Arsehole”, Stealth Bastard asks the question, “why do stealth games have to be so… slow?”

Why, indeed.

Curve Studios cite Super Meat Boy (which is excellent, by the way) and Metal Gear Solid as their primary inspirations for Stealth Bastard, and the pace of the game does in fact lie somewhere between the two. Things are never quite as frantic as Super Meat Boy, but Stealth Bastard largely lives up to its promise of a fast-paced stealth game. Sure, sometimes the player must wait for a patrolling robot to pass or for the deadly laser beams to sweep out of the way, but these typically only entail a few seconds delay before the platforming resumes. And individual levels are not overly complex, taking only a few minutes to complete. Unlike either source of inspiration, however, Stealth Bastard actually plays more like a puzzle game than an action game. The main challenge in a given level involves determining the proper route, activating switches and pushing blocks into the right positions so the protagonist can move through the level unseen and evade a gruesome death from guards or traps. As such, it retains the methodical feeling of a stealth game while keeping a quicker pace, and new enemies and mechanics are introduced steadily to keep things fresh. For those who really crave a fast-paced game, the integrated leaderboards encourage players to complete levels as quickly as possible as they vie for the top spot worldwide.

The graphics also deserve special mention. Screenshots don’t really do it justice; in motion, Stealth Bastard features real-time dynamic shadows that respond as platforms move and doors open or close, and certain sections of levels will fade in and out as the player moves through them, lending the levels a really slick look. The shadows become interesting game elements, as the various switches and moveable blocks in the levels are used to provide a cover of darkness just as often as they facilitate more mundane tasks like opening locked doors. A slightly raised platform might be just enough to cast a shadow across a room, letting the player sneak past a security camera to the exit. Cleverly, the player’s visibility level (invisible, partially visible, or fully visible) is indicated at the bottom of the screen but is also shown by the color of the protagonist’s goggles, which means one never needs to take one’s eyes off the action to determine whether or not one can be seen. Similar visual cues help the player quickly see the result of hitting switches or buttons.

The game’s 28 levels can be finished quickly, but there is a full level editor included so players can make new levels. From an in-game menu, players can download all the levels submitted so far (783 of them, at the time of writing) and search and sort through them easily. I haven’t tried any fan-made levels yet, so I can’t comment on the overall level of quality available, but I expect there are plenty of gems to be found.

Stealth Bastard is quite polished for a free game, and it will please those who found the likes of Super Meat Boy too frustrating. While there are some sections that require speed or precise timing, for the most part Stealth Bastard challenges one’s brain rather than one’s twitch skills. If sneaking past and outsmarting deadly robots sounds like a good time to you, go grab it and give it a try. If you like it, there’s plenty of user-made levels waiting for you too. Happy sneaking!