The Bottom Line: A smart, streamlined twin-stick shooter that packs plenty of fun but is held back by uneven difficulty progression.
Stealth, at least in video games, often comes down to patience. Wait, watch, analyze, and the perfect moment to act will make itself apparent. While Definitely Sneaky But Not Sneaky didn’t always adhere to this tried-and-true model of stealth, it did have something else to teach me about patience. Namely, that I shouldn’t be too quick to pass judgement on a game. As mothers are wont to say, you must finish your dinner before you can eat dessert.
Definitely Sneaky But Not Sneaky takes the gameplay of Hotline Miami, slathers it with Superhot-inspired aesthetics, and divides the experience into bite-sized chunks. Your objective in every level is the same: Navigate the area, grab the yellow cube, and return to the starting point. Whether you do this stealthily or violently is (usually) up to you. Although I tend to tread carefully and kill sparingly in games like Dishonored and Thief, in this game’s case I generally found that rapid administrations of violence worked best.
The control scheme conforms to standard twin-stick shooter conventions. One stick moves, the other aims. Left trigger controls the weapon in your left hand, right trigger controls right. Shoulder buttons, meanwhile, activate any utility items you may have equipped. While combat doesn’t feel as tight as the best in the genre, the controls are sufficiently responsive. The gameplay even has a few interesting wrinkles here and there. For instance, switching your gun from one hand to the other – which you can do anytime – might provide the extra inches of clearance you need to hit a tricky shot around a corner.
As you complete missions, you’ll earn money and unlock more upgrades options at the shop. At the outset your arsenal is limited to melee weapons, but before long you’ll gain access to a full range of firearms, shurikens, grenades, and other delightfully destructive toys, all with unique capabilities. Most of these perks are the kinds of you’ve seen before: The basic pistol is silenced; the revolver penetrates enemies, allowing one bullet to mow down a row of enemies; the shotgun fires in a spread pattern. The selection of weapons provides ample opportunities for experimentation, and although I eventually settled on a couple of preferred weapons, it was simply because they complemented my playstyle, not because they were objectively superior.
The utilities are more of a mixed bag. For instance, one utility grants invisibility, but the effect is extremely brief and it can only be used once per mission attempt. It seemed too limited for me to make it a regular part of my kit, especially since equipping it takes up many inventory slots.
Aesthetically speaking, the game is all about function over form. Both the player character and his enemies are dead ringers for the low-poly baddies from Superhot. The UI looks like a sharper version of the DOS menus I remember from my youth. Level design is sparse, reusing the same elements over and over. And the music, courtesy of composer Kevin MacLeod’s extensive Creative Commons library, would not sound out of place in a hotel elevator. If Hotline Miami is the John-Wick-on-an-acid-trip of twin-stick shooters, Definitely Sneaky But Not Sneaky is the Roger Moore-era James Bond. Shaken, not stirred.
Definitely Difficult But Not Difficult
The biggest issues here are lack of variety and uneven difficulty progression. When you play on the default Sneaky difficulty (which is the lone option available at the start of the game), you’ll only encounter two types of enemies – green and red. Greens chase you with sharp knives, while reds try to gun you down. There are only so many ways you can arrange these two types of enemies before they wear out their welcome, and I would’ve welcomed more variety.
The difficulty curve is also underwhelming. At the Sneaky difficulty, you can almost always haphazardly stumble your way to victory without any planning or forethought about your approach. There were certainly some levels that took me a few tries, and others that forced me to hit precise shots, but never did I feel like I needed to return to the drawing board to reassess my tactics. Brute force always won the day.
That’s how I plowed my way through the first two hours of the game, and honestly it was kind of boring. It left me on the fence about whether to write a positive or negative review. As it turns out, however, the real fun doesn’t begin until you unlock the Sneakier difficulty. This mode cranks up the pace and amplifies the pressure with multiple new elements. It turns the game from an overly casual sneaker into a sweaty-palmed shooter.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say the sudden jump in difficulty that Sneakier mode introduces may be almost too great. A smoother difficulty curve, one that sprinkles elements of the Sneakier mode throughout the initial campaign instead thrusting them upon the player all at once, would make for a more engaging game all around. As it stands, Definitely Sneaky But Not Sneaky is still worth playing, especially if you can grab it on sale. It’s just a shame that you have to slog through the lukewarm base difficulty before you’re allowed to dig in to the sweet stuff.