Stealth Inc: A Clone in the Dark was one of the most innovative and entertaining games of the year. The intoxicating blend of platforming and stealth elements, set within a dark tongue-in-cheek atmosphere that reminds one of Oddworld , was a necessary tonic. For me, it represented a step back from the inundation of AAA productions in which I’d been immersed, and reminded me that at its core, interactive entertainment doesn’t require next-level technical proficiency. However, the sequel, while still fun and wonderfully designed, comes across as less refined and more…annoying.
Even though the visual display is a little better than the original title, I actually think the overall presentation isn’t quite as good. This one just seems darker, drabber, and less inspired. While the puzzles are excellently conceived and implemented, the actual environment just isn’t all that involving. Too many of the areas just blend together and as a result, you feel removed from the experience. All you really want to do is tackle and conquer the next puzzle; I had less interest in actually exploring and learning more about my surroundings. But anyway, the animations are great and the effects are subtle yet slick, so those are bonuses.
As one might anticipate, much of Stealth Inc 2: A Game of Clones is played in relative silence. You’re trying to escape a dastardly laboratory of sorts and as such, there’s this continual sense of urgency. However, we don’t require a kickin’ soundtrack to enhance that urgency, as the tension comes by way of our situation. We know we’re as fragile as can be, and we know the odds are stacked heavily against us. And again, the effects are subtle yet effective; the sudden snap of a laser beam will make you jump, especially because it’s such a stark contrast to the general quiet. Otherwise, there isn’t much to talk about from a technical perspective.
The original game was a great mix of innovation and an homage to the olden days of puzzle/platformers. In the sequel, you play as the only clone that didn’t get ground into a sub-par meat product, and you have the opportunity to escape. Standing in your way is a barrage of deadly obstacles, including attack robots, traps, and a variety of nasty things that can end your life very quickly. As such, expect to die many, many times. That’s just part of the experience, really. The story is relatively straightforward, although more prominent than in the first title; the idea is simple: A scientist will nail down Employee of the Month if he succeeds in ending your pitiful life. So, the farther you get, the more irritated he gets and consequently, the tougher the puzzles get.
You really have to think on your toes. You won’t always have time to analyze and compute; sometimes you just have to react and hope for the best. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this sequel is that it assumes you’ve played the original, and are therefore familiar with the game’s controls and steep difficulty. This will undoubtedly annoy first-timers who simply find the concept intriguing. The game starts off hard and remains hard throughout and while the puzzle purists will likely find it enticing, I’m afraid a lot of gamers will simply toss the controller away. The other problem is that your rewards – outside of a sense of a satisfaction – or sorta nonexistent.
Now, I have no problem with puzzle-related difficulty. I often find it refreshing and challenging. But when it’s all you have (the story is just filler and unfortunately not worth your time), you need to make the game well-paced and at least somewhat accessible. I’m not getting that well-paced vibe with the sequel and despite the new Metroid -type structure, I think the original’s simpler style worked better. Plus, the control isn’t quite as solid this time around, and the number of cheap deaths tends to pile up quickly. I will also add that I’m not a fan of instituting time-based challenges in any puzzle game, but that’s more of a personal complaint.
Downfalls aside, this follow-up effort still boasts plenty of ingenious puzzles. Just because they’re brutally difficult doesn’t change the fact that they’re really smart. I have great appreciation for that. And it’s not like you’re entirely without resources; you will find various gadgets during your adventure that will invariably help. You can also find assistance in other clones who, in their futile attempt to escape, show you where the dangers lie. Some will even help out as best they can; i.e., stepping on switches or pulling levers to let you through. They all die in the end, of course; half the time, you’re just waiting to see how they bite the dust.
The combination of various elements works very well; from the arrangement of traps and interact-able aspects of the environment, to the inclusion of other clones. Sure, there’s a lot of trial-and-error but I expect no less with such a game. Perhaps the biggest difference here is that you must solve very difficult puzzles to reach new levels, and the timed aspect of certain challenges makes for a more frantic presentation. If you can master the combination of stealth and pinpoint precision, you’ll probably do well…but it aint’ easy. Cameras are everywhere, robot dogs chase you all over the place, and remaining unseen isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Timing and tact are paramount and again, I have great appreciation for that.
Stealth Inc 2: A Game of Clones is an extremely challenging and exceedingly well-designed blend of clever stealth and platforming. It builds on the concepts of the original and while it implements a few things I don’t like, it’s an undeniably unique adventure. It’s just too bad that the controls feel slightly wonky and the repetitiveness of the levels gets a little boring as time goes on. Plus, with a greatly increased number of cheap – and decidedly infuriating – deaths, one wonders if even hardcore players are willing to submit to such demanding trials. We also don’t need a story; the inclusion of one is somewhat amusing but it does nothing for the overall experience. Bottom line: If you enjoyed the original, give it a try. Otherwise, play the first game and go from there.
The Good: Nice visual and sound effects. Certain useful and unique tools spice things up. Ingeniously designed puzzles. A stiff challenge for the puzzle purists. Trying to top the best times of your friends is addictive.
The Bad: Backgrounds start to feel tedious. Learning curve might be too steep. Story feels tacked on and unessential. Control isn’t perfect.
The Ugly: “Dying is fine…dying when it's impossible to avoid gets tiring.”