Preview: Stealth Blade

2024-01-22 by Callum Andrews

Ninja Celeste

These days, it feels like a lot of developers underestimate the player's imagination and ability to adapt. A lot of game launches are cluttered with tutorials, hint prompts, mission pointers and a ton of straightforward quests where the biggest challenge would be to collect the required amount of points to unlock the skill that would weirdly solve all your problems in one go.

It all feels too mechanical these days except for games like Celeste, which was very direct about putting you at the centre of things. Here's the stage, here's what you can do and here's the spikes and whatever else you have to overcome. The rest is your story. After playing lc85's Stealth Blade recently, I recalled how good it felt to push myself to the limits again without the excessive hand-holding and without a soul-like formula for a change.

Stealth Blade is a 2D monochrome side-scrolling action game where the only time you'll remember there's even a story is when you read the Steam description or the first tutorial menu that says you're a ninja who's supposedly on a journey of revenge and to save your son. I instantly forgot about my family and my revenge plot as this bit of subtext pretty much had no relevance to the gameplay nor did it add any emotional substance to my journey.

The real story of Stealth Blade is in the stages themselves. There are about 3 biomes or locations in this game, each with 15 stages to complete and a fourth location that has a secret number of stages. The goal for each stage is to simply walk or run all the way from left to right until your character reaches the final Torii Gate and wraps up the stage. However this is something that is easier said than done. Each stage is cluttered with spike traps, moving spike contraptions, enemies with guns and swords, spears and even invisible traps in the ground and walls. You're never really safe here no matter what you do and you always have to watch your step.

Addictive, accessible, and challenging

Fortunately, you have a number of skills that are both useful and easily accessible. Your ninja can perform a dash that has the power to kill all enemies in its path (or almost all enemies, since you'll encounter enemies later who are immune to it). The dash can also be used to traverse areas with little to no footing or to avoid certain traps. If the dash isn't viable, another skill allows your character to transform into a wooden block that prevents other enemies from seeing or interacting with you, but it's time-limited. Finally, there's the star Shuriken, which is mainly the primary and only weapon you'll use to remove any obstacles in your path.

All of these are within reach of your left hand on the keyboard and are shown on screen as a HUD that feels like the game was originally a mobile game that received a PC port, so the game can be enjoyed entirely with one hand which felt good from an accessibility perspective. You also get acquainted with all of these skills from the beginning and there's also a way to upgrade each skill using the currency you collect from enemies. This is important because every enemy or trap can one-hit you to death and force you to restart a big chunk of gameplay or the entire stage. There are also alternate costumes to choose from for the wooden block transformation ability, which felt a bit useless and microtransaction-y in my opinion but a bit of customization never hurts.

As for the stages' composition, It didn’t take too long for me to get invested in the increasing level of challenge Stealth Blade offered. The traps got harder really fast and required more rapid reflexes and quick thinking. What worked for a stage simply didn’t work for the one after it. There were some really good setpieces as well that had me scratching my head for a good 15 minutes until I was able to find the correct path to my goal. In some stages, I had to dodge thunderclouds and flying sprockets and then land on moving platforms all within the span of a jump or two. It just felt very exciting to land it all correctly, while still anticipating that there might be enemies waiting on the other side with their loaded guns and pointed spears. I wouldn't say it rose to the insane difficulty level of Celeste, but it did pack quite a punch.

A thing to note is that there are two approaches to each stage, and they are somewhat intertwined. Since each new biome or location requires you to collect at least 30 scrolls from the previous biome, and each stage has 3 of these scrolls. You will find yourself making side trips at each stage to look for them. The scrolls are often well hidden or obvious but behind a very convoluted set piece of cluttered enemies and contraptions. You don't have to collect ALL of them though, as each biome has 45 of them and you only need 30 to progress, so you are somewhat free to give up on obtaining some of them if you can’t figure out the flow of the stage.

The tutorial screen of death

I’ve decided to dump all my negativity about this experience here because I didn’t want to deem the game as something that's entirely flawed or unworthy. Stealth Blade is totally worth it, but it’s simply unwinnable at the moment. The first stage of the third biome had me stuck at the tutorial screen where you gain the ability to make your own checkpoints and manage your stage progression yourself. I’ve tried uninstalling and reinstalling the game a few times to get rid of this tutorial screen of death but to no avail. I recommend waiting until the developer rolls out a patch fix for this game-breaking error, but assuming it's fixed, I would say the game requires about 8-10 hours to finish in total or maybe 5 if you are an action-platformer veteran unlike me. Aside from the glitchy screen, the game feels unfinished or under extreme budget constraints. The stages also don't change much in their monochrome scenery except for the placement of traps and enemies and apart from those empty sections with beautiful orange lanterns, most of the journey was aesthetically boring. The few background soundtracks were not very memorable or even noticeable and the protagonist only has two lines to say about how easy it is to slice the same three or four recurring types of enemies like watermelons. There's also no controller support or different controller schemes in general for people who want a change in input schemes and for those whose left hand got tired halfway through, like mine.

There are also some areas where some inspiration would have made it better. For example, the final stage of each biome has nothing to distinguish it from any other stage in the same biome. And there's little incentive to return to the stages in general after you've captured their scrolls. The developers could have gone with a time attack mode or a no-hit mode that rewarded players with extra currency. That currency could have then been funnelled into getting more upgrades or resurrection attempts, but none of that is here. It felt like a huge missed opportunity because the foundation is already really good and should have just been more rewarding or had multiple ways of rewarding the players for their efforts other than just unlocking the next stage for them. Stealth Blade can work for some if it is treated with more love and care and gets polished up a bit to make it more appealing to try. Maybe the developer can add more challenges or extra unlockables or at least tweak the visuals a bit, but in its current form, it's not the most appealing game visually or content-wise. Even if the screen glitch is fixed, I wouldn't say that many will go out of their way to play Stealth Blade unless it has some extra flair that really brings out the innate qualities of the game and invites players into its addictive stage design.