My brother-in-law is a firm believer that every game could use a little bit of stealth — that the cadence of any title could be improved by some good ol’ fashioned sneaking around. Having apparently developed their fledgling title inside his brain, developer Naiad Entertainment takes this idea to its furthest logical conclusion in the form of Sneaky Sneaky, a game that is a little bit of stealth, incarnate. And while my brother-in-law’s maxim may not hold up in every case, one thing is certain after having sleuthed my way through the game: everybody could use a little bit of Sneaky Sneaky.
This includes, of course, the titular thief Sneaky (there’s a pattern emerging here, I just don’t know *what* it is). Having just made off with the Sultan’s precious Rubies, only to have them snatched away and strewn about the kingdom by a meddlesome bird, it’s Sneaky’s job – and yours – to skulk about and gather them up again. Across levels spanning the beast-laden Impwood, the winding sands of the Cursed Canyon, and the Summer Kingdom teeming with guards, you set out to reclaim the precious stones, one silent step at a time.
This broad-strokes premise gives Naiad an easy excuse to lean on a mobile staple: “do this thing and earn three of these things while you’re at it!” In practice, however, Sneaky Sneaky is so much more. Tapping to direct the fearless little fugitive around the screen, you need to keep a constant eye on the red field of view assigned to each enemy, paying close attention to what they can see as they move around, and using that knowledge to your advantage in order to snag treasure, pocket precious rubies, and back-stab from the shadows. The result is a genuinely tense, expertly crafted stealth title that slinks into your pocket under the guise of being the type of casual puzzler you’ve come to expect on iOS.
Much of Sneaky Sneaky’s success comes from its finely tuned progression — the way it seamlessly graduates you from avoiding lowly dungeon guards unarmed, to stabbing monsters from behind with a sword, to taking out heavy enemies from afar with your bow before they see you up close. Items neither get dropped at your feet all at once, nor metered out so sparingly as to leave dead air. Naiad skillfully lays out levels in such a way that players have the opportunity to make the most of new mechanics, and then trusts their audience to be smart enough to develop strategies with the tools at their disposal.
Subtle cues like differently patterned walking paths and targets representing the last place an enemy believes you to be all combine to arm you with everything needed to survey a scene and chart a course through it. Clearing a screen full of enemies without being seen feels invigoratingly like setting off a line of dominoes, and being one of the dominoes yourself.
Bolstering your core arsenal is an equally clever set of power-ups. Separate of staples like the health potion, Sneaky Sneaky offers a delightful host of tangible strategy-enhancing tools. “Monster bait” has an aroma which lures enemies out and opens up opportunities for previously inaccessible circumnavigation; “Oil of Nightshade” tempers the tips of your arrows with a sedative that turns the biggest of brutes into easy targets for a limited time; and of course, the stealth stalwart “Moving Cover” item disguises Sneaky as one of the environments many barrels, allowing him to walk through densely packed rooms unnoticed.
Taken together, these consumables add a wonderful sense of deftness and flexibility to the game, allowing you to be spontaneous when the best laid plans fall apart and make meaningful choices about how you’re going to approach each scenario. Perhaps most satisfyingly of all, each item can be purchased entirely with the game’s generously supplied “gold” currency, which you never have to shell out of pocket to acquire. Okay, I lied. Perhaps most satisfyingly of all, items are sold to you by an adorable entrepreneurial rat holding a gold coin half the size of his body. But the respectful way Sneaky Sneaky treats the player’s wallet doesn’t hurt either.
While we’re on the subject of things that don’t hurt, the game’s vibrant, dotingly drawn visuals make Sneaky Sneaky a smile-inducing joy from start to finish. Traces of studio Creative Director Jay Epperson’s previous work on world-class titles like Donkey Kong Country Returns and Bastion is easy to spot in the lively bouncing of flora and fauna and boldly defined craftsmanship of everything from the world map to the “Play” button. Visual elements that would have gone otherwise unnoticed if they were absent seem to have instead been given monumental care and attention, for no other reason than to make the player feel delighted.
At 16 stages, it’s not hard to predict the game length criticisms that are sure to be levied at Sneaky Sneaky. To my mind, they’ll all be baseless. Sneaky Sneaky makes one of the most compelling cases I’ve seen this year for premium experiences on mobile, and – quite fittingly – sneaks under the wire as one of the best titles of 2014.