One of the big challenges of writing about the current crop of downloadable games is that it’s increasingly difficult to be really mean about the art direction. Back when most of us were only reviewing console shooters, for example, we could almost always get in a dig about how dull and brown everything was. Nice game, but brown much? Those were the days. Now, it’s all sunshine, lollipops and psychedelic whales. Everything’s pretty and inventive and maddeningly uncompromised. Beat Sneak Bandit’s a case in point. It looks like golden era Mad Magazine crossed with a 1950s’ duck-and-cover animation film. It’s smart and beautifully detailed and basically the most delightful thing I’ve seen all week – although, granted, I have just passed through Swindon on a train, so I may need recalibration.
When it comes to the actual design, Simogo’s latest is equally hard to dislike – and that’s something of a shock at first. This is one-button rhythm action pushed far beyond the point at which one-button rhythm action should competently operate: it initially seems to be providing the basis for a complex platformer rather than a stripped-back music game. Get stuck in, though, and you’ll discover that it’s not too surprising that the whole thing actually works as well as it does. Simogo’s created a simple mechanic that moves to an unshakeable beat, and then it layers on the complications with an uncommon degree of care.
The central idea is ingenious stuff: you’re a stylish and honourable burglar working your way into the mansion of a local clock-stealing mega-villain, and you move through the game by tapping the screen in time with the music. One tap equals one step, and that’s just about the extent of your direct control. Encounter stairs, and you’ll climb them. Hit a wall, and you’ll turn around and head back in the opposite direction.
Your objective is to reach a target on each of the game’s 2D, split-tiered levels, and there are some brilliant gimmicks blocking your path. Guards patrol in rigid, easy-to-memorize patterns, while hovering vacuums slowly zero in on your location. Teleporters zap you from one spot to another, switches open shutters and trapdoors, and spotlights will end your fun the instant they catch you in their beams. That’s more than enough to be getting on with at first, but deep in the second half of the adventure, the designers grow cocky and chuck in a machine that allows you to freeze time. It sounds like too much for such a simple game to handle, but it’s introduced beautifully, and it comes with a wonderful visual design that tells you how long you have left on the meter before the world around you grinds back into life again. It’s another little mechanical victory for Simogo, in other words, and another brilliant complication for you.
Beat Sneak Bandit’s a fairly short game, but its lifespan extends off into the horizon if you want to genuinely master it. To unlock all of the bonus stages, you’ll have to nab all the collectable clocks scattered around the place, and that can be really tricky, since they tend to explode whenever you make a mistake, just like real clocks. Even if you’re only looking to power through the basics, however, there are some audacious moments along the way, such as challenges that drop you into the game right next to your target but facing the wrong direction, and a climactic boss fight that’s paced with such precision that you’ll end up feeling like one of those little mechanical automatons that dances around the outside of elaborate bell towers in Switzerland, or jumped-up shopping malls, or that Herman Melville short story I can never remember the name of.
And, yes, it all looks beautiful, remember? It’s got charismatic animations and intricate backdrops that balance science fiction elements with fussy domesticity. There’s a hint of Elvin Atombender to the mix, and I don’t think I saw a rusty barrel or a forklift puzzle anywhere. It sounds great, too, as the audio switches back and forth between scratchy, turntablist jazz and the kind of music Professor E. Gadd likes to pump out back at his workshop. I miss you, Professor.
Witty, economical, and almost intimidatingly clever, then, Beat Sneak Bandit is your weekend taken care of. Thanks, Simogo.