Mike Bithell made a splash way back in 2010 with Thomas Was Alone, a platformer with tight mechanics and a damn near perfect story. And he’s back with Volume, a game that strips stealth gaming down to its essentials and makes it a model of the genre.
Volume (PS4, PC, Vita coming soon)
Volume, as a game, is stripped down. Your hero is represented with a fairly realistic sprite, but everything else is abstract polygons and simple patterns. The sound mix is rich and detailed, as well.
Story-wise, the plot is a witty riff on Robin Hood but somewhat disposable. You’re Rob Locksley, but instead of robbing the rich and giving to the poor, the rich being those surrounding one Gisborne in this case, you’re open-sourcing theft. An AI you’ve stolen generates the layouts as abstractions, and you’re streaming to the people live instructions on how to rob secure facilities.
It’s a clever idea because it reduces the stakes just enough to reduce frustration with them; you’re not actually being shot in the head by a robot. You’re just botching a simulation. It makes it a lot more fun to make mistakes, which considering how demanding stealh games are, is crucial to making the game work.
In fairness, there’s not much new here in terms of stealth gameplay or mechanics. It’s a game where you sneak through levels. It’s not really about the wheel, here, but how smooth and polished it is.
Speaking of which, don’t fire this game up if you’ve got anything else to do, because Bithell has perfected stealth gameplay. Like I said, he’s not reinventing the wheel, but it’s clear this game took so long because he was tuning the mechanics to just so.
Most stealth games mistake punishing even the tiniest possible mistake for difficulty. Bithell, though, designs the levels so that the solution to the various puzzles are clear, and makes the execution simple and intuitive. Every sound you make, every foe’s field of vision, every wall you can cling to is visually represented, making it much easier to sneak around and distract guards.
There’s nothing worse than a puzzle where the solution is obvious, but actually executing it is dull; Bithell avoids this majestically, while giving you enough room for close shaves and breathtaking escapes. Solving a puzzle and making a sprint for the exit, getting it just in time, is exhilarating. Helping matters are the bite-size nature of the game’s 100 levels; they’re designed to be finished up in a minute or two, so you’ve got to be quick on your feet, but they’re also generous with the save points and reset the timer whenever you die.
There are slips here and there; aiming with the right thumbstick is annoyingly imprecise, and it’ll take you a few tries to get a handle on some of the tools you can find in the levels. But overall, it’s everything you want a stealth game to be; the rules are clear, and skin-of-the-teeth escapes abound.
The game has 100 core levels, which you’ll burn through in about three to five hours. After that? There are remixed core levels, user-built levels, and the challenge of finishing some of these rooms at or below par. You’ll get a lot out of this game for the $20.
None; there’s no DLC or anything like that on the horizon, and the game itself is so meaty, you wouldn’t miss it if there was.
Not many indie developers follow up a spectacular first game with an equally superb second one, but Bithell has done just that. This game shows AAA franchises that use stealth how it should be done, and if you like stealth games at all…