Conventional wisdom would have it that the Wii U is your archetypal Nintendo console: ideal for kids and families, not so much for the self-identifying 'hardcore' gamer. Conventional wisdom, in this instance, is an ass. If you want a challenge, Wii U absolutely has you covered: from The Wonderful 101 to Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails, Bayonetta 2 to New Super Luigi U, here you'll face some of the sternest tests you'll ever encounter. In that light, Stealth Inc. 2 is a surprisingly good fit for Nintendo's unfairly maligned console - and it might just be the toughest of the lot.
Its subtitle is certainly apposite given that the death count for a single level is comparable to your average George RR Martin novel. As in the original (formerly, and fittingly, known as Stealth Bastard) you play as a stumpy, goggled clone, tasked with getting through a series of deviously designed test chambers - think Portal with a more sadistic sense of humour and lashings of cartoon gore. As the title suggests, you'll spend most of your time in the shadows, distracting and dodging patrolling robots, cameras and barking dogs, avoiding traps, hacking computer terminals and generally trying to stay out of harm's way.
You don't have a weapon, but you do have a series of gadgets that unlock as you progress, and can be used to destructive effect on occasion. First up is the Inflate-a-Mate, a multi-purpose blow-up doll who can be used to trigger floor switches, give you a lift to higher platforms, and block out lights to keep you hidden. Soon you'll get hold of the Jackboy, which allows you to hack your robotic pursuers and take control of them: you can demolish barriers or trigger mechanisms with their lasers or simply move them away from where you need to go. There's a futuristic lantern that triggers light-sensitive panels and apparatus, while the Me Too device allows you to create a second clone who'll copy your actions in some of the game's most mind-melting stages.
Complete the eighth stage of each set and you'll gain access to these tools outside the chambers, as you explore a large facility, which is gear-gated in the classic Metroidvania tradition. The puzzles here are at least as devious as those in the chambers, and the process of simply reaching the next set of levels may well leave you stumped for a while. Switching between gadgets is crucial, and though the threats here aren't as frequent as in the chambers, you'll still need to time your advances carefully, channelling steam through vents to hide from view, and using your inflatable friend to boost-jump up to otherwise unreachable areas. An advanced technique I discovered quite early on allows you to chain jumps by retrieving and reactivating the Inflate-a-mate after the first bounce, a mechanic that feels very Metroid.
It's a broader, more expansive proposition than the first game, and there's a slight narrative attached, too: with each daring escape you're thwarting an increasingly frustrated scientist, who just needs to kill one more clone to beat a rival to the 'employee of the month' award. Text projections on the walls of the chambers - and the wider facility - are often quite witty, your actions often either the setup or the punchline to a gag. "Does this help at all?" precedes the arrival of a deadly hazard, while killing an enemy prompts the response "violent little thing, aren't you?"
More often, though, the game mocks you for your failures, the payoff line delivered as your clone is messily splattered by a hidden trap. These are amusingly devious at times, a cruel slapstick surprise you'll rarely see coming, and for the most part you won't mind because the generous checkpoints will only erase a few seconds of progress.
And yet after a while I was adding these to a growing list of irritants that combined to make Stealth Inc. 2 one of the most disappointing experiences I've had with a game all year. Though the puzzles are often wonderfully elaborate, with each stage containing maybe half a dozen little epiphanies, figuring out the solution is only half the battle, if that. Once you've worked out what to do, you'll face a struggle executing your plan in such claustrophobic environments, particularly given how exacting it can be when it comes to timing. In a few too many stages, I blundered across the right answer only by exhausting every other possibility. Turns out trial-and-error isn't that much fun when half the time the errors don't feel like your fault.
Many chambers require you to throw an object to a precise spot, and it'll often take a few attempts before it lands in the right place, particularly with the extra pressure of patrolling enemies, moving platforms and the like. You have to be fast and precise to succeed, and when that involves manoeuvring a hacked enemy into position while holding down the right trigger to keep their laser trained on a panel and simultaneously navigating a series of platforms with your clone, it begins to feel a bit too much like hard work. The moment when the exit doors open in a flash of brilliant white is supposed to be satisfying, but too often the only emotion I felt was relief.
It hardly helps matters that the facility is a bleak old place, its rooms and corridors drab and gloomily lit. As a stealth game, you'd expect plenty of shadows to crawl around in, but I'm not sure that excuses the overabundance of black on the screen at all times. In the Adventure Light chambers you'll spend half the time in pitch darkness, visible only as a pair of glowing green eyes. Explore the place thoroughly and you'll find hats and outfits in which to dress your clone, but you'll have to squint to really notice the difference.
To compound my frustrations, on three separate occasions I managed to trigger a checkpoint as I died, with each subsequent restart killing me instantly. The only way around this was to quit the chamber and start again in every case. By this stage, the scientist's taunts wondered out loud why I was bothering to continue, and I began to ask myself the same question.
Some will no doubt relish these barbs as further encouragement to beat the system; others will see its steep challenge as a mountain that must be conquered, whatever the cost to their sanity. But for my money Stealth Inc. 2 falls short of the games I'd consider its peers, never quite capturing the simple ingenuity of Toki Tori 2, the nervy thrills of Mark of the Ninja, nor the physical comedic energy of 'Splosion Man. It's just too demanding and too laborious too often. It may no longer be Bastard by name, but by nature it's a bit of a git.
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