Everything a player needs to know about Curve Digital’s literally sneaky puzzle platformer, Stealth Inc. 2: A Game of Clones, is in its title. Though the original name, Stealth Bastard, might have more accurately summed up the epithet players are most likely to hurl at the screen right before breaking their controller, the use of a pun more accurately describes the playful way in which a player’s path to victory is littered with a healthy mixture of laughter and groans. As with Game of Thrones, there’s a steady and sometimes surprising stream of murder; what makes this bearable, if not enjoyable, is that, because the PTi Institute is in the clone-testing business (they harvest each clone’s goggles for use as a child’s happy-meal toy), a death is merely a teachable moment in QA followed by a rebirth, not an end to the story. In fact, given the level construction, players will often have to die dozens of times in order to figure out how to avoid, say, a whirling sawblade that abruptly pops out of the wall, or a ceiling with a penchant for suddenly crushing those underneath.
The resultant gameplay is a combination of Portal and Oddworld, as the player-controlled clone seeks to rescue its clone companions from the snark- and deathtrap-filled “test chambers.” This gives Game of Clones a stronger sense of purpose than its predecessor, for the grueling tests are now punctuated by the Metroidvania-like exploration of PTi’s various floors, from the outer walls of the Security Zone to the pitch-dark recesses of the Clone Dungeon. There’s also a better sense of pacing: Each unique area’s 10 rooms test the same, specific tool, whereas the overworld allows you to swap freely between devices (once they’ve been unlocked), encouraging players to experiment with wacky combinations in order to reach the various hidden costumes, such as a skull with a bear’s body and a jester’s cap atop a musketeer. Whereas the individual rooms are tensely graded, ranking players based on their speed, stealth, and number of deaths, the exploration between chambers is a chance to catch one’s breath.
Comedy continues to alleviate the pressure throughout. Room titles like “Threatiquette” and “Jack and Kill” ensure that at least the first few deaths come while a player is still smiling, just as achievements like “Scarlett Pimperhell” give them a reason to continue struggling against the most fiendish of traps. More importantly, almost every death is foreshadowed and mocked by PTi’s sinister product tester, whose wall-screen projections seem to channel a bleaker, more Beckettsian type of humor. Even the various tools are cheerfully named, though it’s unclear if it’s actually any better to accidentally crush oneself with the Inflate-a-Mate as opposed to a plain old piston.
Game of Clones’s greatest asset, however, is that it’s not just a clone. Though it has obvious inspirations in hard-as-nails, precision platformers like Super Meat Boy, the actual challenges within each of the 60 levels are persistently novel, with little-to-no overlap. If one level requires players to hack foes and use them to hold down switches, the next may demand that they instead use their reluctant ally to defend against an enemy horde. One device, the Me Too, actually flips the script, often requiring players to find a way to murder their original character so as to shift control to their freshly summoned clone. The one small quibble is that some of these devices, especially the Teleporters and illumination-granting Adventure Light, are difficult to aim with an analog stick, especially for some of the more time-sensitive levels.
One important recommendation: Game of Clones isn’t meant for lengthy play sessions. Instead, it’s geared toward specific challenges, which is why the main menu allows players to not only instantly return to any completed chambers, but to tackle a theoretically infinite number of community-generated challenges. (The truly sadistic will enjoy using the built-in level editor to torment their peers.) Game of Clones walks a fine line between delight and despair, but there’s only so much laughter to be found in slaughter: The longer one plays without taking a break, the more wearying it all seems.
Curve Digital’s Stealth Inc. 2: A Game of Clones is available now for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 3, PSVita, and Wii U.