The stealth genre seems to be a hard nut to crack. Aside from a few standouts, stealth seems to be a mechanic that is often touched, but rarely perfected. Metal Gear Solid is likely the most well know stealth game, even though it sports a heavy dose of action to keep players on their toes. Splinter Cell made a splash on the scene with its “smart” AI and dependence on shadows to keep Sam hidden from his enemies. But yet again players could, for the most part, depend on their weapons to assist them in getting out of a sticky situation. Lest we not forget the original Thief, which seems to be the first successful game to make stealth work. With equal parts exploration, discovery, and prayer as an enemy guard walks within feet of you, Thief, and the stealth genre as a whole can make players rely on patience and nerves. When executed properly, a clever stealth game will haunt you with feelings you are not normally accustomed to.
Not the Robots is a roguelike stealth game available on Steam. In it, players control some sort of futuristic vacuum that can suck up furniture with ease. It seems robots of the future use furniture as fuel. Throughout their various “runs”, players will be weaving in and out of office floors, dodging sentries, sucking furniture, and collecting power-ups to further help them reach the floors below. The story is minimal, almost non-existent if you aren’t a competitionist. Broken up into audio logs strewn throughout your various playthroughs, the story slowly unveils what building you are in, and who or what you are.
As with most, if not all, roguelikes, players are expected to fail. Fortunately, every failure in Not the Robots comes with its rewards. To help increase the amount of rewards gained, players can earn bonuses for taking no damage, or picking up special boxes which are only unlocked through special parameters. This level up system encourages players to take a more planned and patient route, instead of blazing through the levels, hoping to grab the required objectives quickly enough to negate the damage they will be receiving.
Stealth in some games can be a one-trick pony. Once players figure out the patrol routes of enemies and the length of their “detection” radius, players can abuse the system to elegantly sweep through a level. Not the Robots has their own answer to this. Every level in Not the Robots‘ story mode is procedurally generated. Floor plans, furniture, enemies, and power ups are all randomized and presented to the player in a new way each time. While I consider myself a veteran of the stealth genre, I could not fall back on my habits earned through stealth games of yore. Not only were the levels unique through each playthrough, but the enemy patrol routes were hard to follow, almost seemingly random as well. While a small part of me wanted to learn and blaze through the levels as quickly as possible, I caught myself continually having to rethink my approach. Once the tension and fear is removed from a stealth game, it is no longer stealth. This is not the case with Not the Robots, as I found myself still anxious and my butt still clenching after multiple playthroughs.
The simple graphics complement the gameplay in Not the Robots. While the textures aren’t hand drawn art, and the lighting doesn’t bloom and flow like recent AAA games, Not the Robots finds its art style and sticks with it. Sentries are imposing and fierce, changing shape when they spot you. The robot under your controls leans and dashes, resembling a Segway on a ball. Fluidity of the protagonist leads to fluid controls. Movement is restricted to 2 axis, and a simple crouch key. Sure, there are items and power-ups to collect, but Not the Robots can be beaten without using more than movement and crouch, which is just what a stealth game should be.
There is a lot of thought that went into the sound design of Not the Robots. The smooth jazz soundtrack makes you feel like a spy in the 50s, even though you are maneuvering through modern day office spaces. Using tricks like the application of a filter when you are in stealth, or changing the music when you are low on health, Not the Robots goes against the grain of more typical indie games.
Overall, I enjoyed the time I spent with Not the Robots. Having been burned out by my previous indie game review, I wasn’t looking forward to reviewing another. Things started off on a good foot, with clever and smooth UI design. After my initial run through of the campaign, I found myself immediately making another attempt. The satisfaction of completely clearing a floor of furniture, or the anxiety I felt as I crept past a sentry within inches, kept me coming back for more. Finding flaws for this game is hard, because it delivers exactly what it promises: a roguelike stealth game with unpredictable AI that is fantastic to play in short bursts. Playing the game for more than an hour got tiring at some points, as you are literally doing the same things on each floor, but I suppose that is the beauty behind the roguelike genre.
[+Fluid movement and simple controls] [+Raw, unrefined stealth] [+Excellent music] [+Perfect filler game] [-Difficulty may scare off gamers]