First-person stealth is a personal joy of mine. Immersed in such perspective while lurking about is the basis for many an example of compelling narrative and level design. Thus, the Early Access first-person stealth title The Spy Who Shrunk Me intrigues me. It's clearly a goofy, screwball take on the formula, but I can go for lighthearted humor as much as in-depth narrative. It's like a TimeSplitters stealth level with a dash of Dishonored.
The whole vibe is self-aware quirkiness. You throw bananas to slip up guards. You use a shrink ray on yourself to scurry under desks and chairs. Or, use it on guards and then flush them down toilets (this will bust your ghost run). There are airbag landmines for more silliness.
There are also plenty of solid stealth game traits. One of your items is a transporter remote that can warp you to areas, much like Dishonored’s blinking. There's a stopwatch that stops time. The intro briefing has well-drawn illustrations and mimics Thief's style, though not as effectively (there is no audio ambiance, only voiceover). There's an icon that shows whether you're crouched or not. A question mark indicator that grows will appear above enemies' heads to clue you in on whether they've been alerted to you. There's a rating at the end of each mission for "Ghost" and "Pacifist." While a lot of these ideas are standard for the genre, they're also necessary to make the rest of it work. I was surprised by how close this little experience is to a legitimate first-person immersive stealth game.
Despite that, the developers strive to make you aware that it's not aiming for legitimacy. A disclaimer before you start tells how little time and talent the developers purportedly have. They clearly mean this in jest, but it's still awkwardly self-deprecating. Even the smallest, most lighthearted indie devs shouldn't joke about being terrible. Perhaps the disclaimer served a dual purpose. I'm more likely to enjoy with my expectations lowered.
Whatever the developer’s intent, other mild, self-aware amusements make for some good old cheesy comedy. Player character Audrey Smoothspy has great lines. When you toss a banana, she may say, “Have a nice trip.” When the alert countdown ceases and guards go back to normal, she’ll quip, “Well, they must have found someone, then.” I think these cheesy lines are clever enough to be worth a smirk.
Around the edges, there's a streak of gruesome humor that doesn’t sit well with the otherwise lighthearted tone. While flushing shrunk guards down toilets isn’t exactly light potty humor, it’s much tamer than grinding them in paper shredders or burning them to a tiny crisp on space heaters. Shrinking the pesky guard, picking him up, and killing him off like a fly is this stealth game’s tempting lethal approach. Popping the shrink ray is equivalent to whipping out the gas arrows in Thief II – a quick solution to a pesky alert. This is a key part of the humor here, but I found it too dark. Even if I wasn’t ghosting, I couldn’t toss guards in paper shredders. I stuck to tossing banana peels.
[gallery columns="2" size="large" ids="274638,274639"]
Toss banana peels! Shrink guards!
Despite the dark blemish, the goofy self-referential humor is one of the game’s strengths. When factoring in its potential as a first-person stealth title, the package is almost good. Overall, the game needs work. In its current Early Access state, I can’t recommend The Spy Who Shrunk Me.
The levels are uninspiring. Split mission by mission, each segment gives you a waypoint marker for each objective. I would complain or wish for a way to deactivate them, but a non-guided exploration of the levels reaps no reward. There are no journals or audio logs lying about. Besides the mildly humorous “Lenin Latte” machines, I did not see many story objects in the environment. In each level, I felt like I was just coasting along, passing all the AI toward wherever the objective marker led me.
Your player character makes no sound. This is another TimeSplitters-y element of the game. All stealth is solely by sight. With no crispy footstep sounds or loud thuds when you jump, you feel like a smooth, buttery camera gliding through all these bland maps. In consequence, you feel detached. You don’t feel gripped by the game world. There’s no weight to it. Now, if you like the stealth levels in TimeSplitters, dig in, but know that the feel here is even more shallow.
There needs to be substance to back up the style. "I'm this campy 60s spy with banana peels," Smoothspy says, "but I got no solid game to sink into!" I imagine a well-designed Thief fan mission with such a premise – and it’s great! But The Spy Who Shrunk Me is no well-designed Thief fan mission. It has the potential, but it comes up short in execution.
I love the premise of The Spy Who Shrunk Me: first-person stealth meets self-aware, TimeSplitters humor mixed with campy spy fiction. It just needs the substance: the narrative caches, the multilayered level design, the weighty feel and gameplay. If given enough of that, the final release of this game could be a worthwhile romp. As is, it’s as empty as the banana peels the guards slip on. Check back later, lest you take a fall yourself.
TechRaptor covered The Spy Who Shrunk Me on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.