BADBLOOD nails competitive stealth gaming.
Everybody knows hide-and-seek. No matter what name it goes by or what different nuance the rules may have, if somebody closes their eyes and starts counting most people are going to get the general idea of what to do next. BADBLOOD, created entirely by Winnie Song, clearly takes inspiration from the childhood classic, but doesn’t just leave it at tag-you’re-it. BADBLOOD is visercal and intimate; a deadly dance that requires a discerning amount of both subtlety and boldness, as well as undivided attention. Games can be seconds long or last for minutes, can end in surprise or expected inevitability. The measured design and calculated balance of each of the game’s characters and mechanics allows for an experience that is quick to pick up but that sports layers upon layers of depth. It’s small and simple, but the gorgeously striking art style and unique design choices that have been poured into the game are surely enough to win over any fan of the stealth genre as well as anyone who tends to enjoy hunting their friends.
Games are only 1v1, only splitscreen, and always in a field. The local-only multiplayer actually is an excellent choice, because it allows players to gauge each other’s reactions both in-game and in the real world. The game begins with the players choosing their character from four diverse stylized options: killers, creepers, and creatures that each radiate character in their own macabre way. Each character has an attack pattern and special ability unique to them, creating varying styles of play and interplay between the dastardly four. There are no life bars, mind you, everything is a one-hit kill. The field is a character in and of itself, a gnarled expanse of shifting grass and twisted metal husks. It has its own teeth as well, one false step into a tangle of thorns will stop a player in their tracks, making them cry out and betraying their position to the prying ears of their hunter. After characters are selected, the players each are each put in a corner of the field, the screen is split, and their perspectives are scrambled.
That’s right. In BADBLOOD screen cheating is not a cheese strategy, it’s a survival tactic. With one player’s North different from the other’s, both must struggle to gather not only their enemy’s bearings but also their own before the advantage is takin from them. Landmarks, rustling grass, and special abilities can all be used to hone in on the opposing player but this is much easier said than done. With both players vying for control of the situation, things get very tense quickly. Sometimes a match will end with a perfectly executed sneak attack. Other times, it’s a mad dash to see who can strike a killing blow first. BADBLOOD rewards patience and risk both, but it’s more than capable of punishing excess of either. Stealth games have tried to hit these notes before, and have definitely come close with game modes like Splinter Cell’s Spies vs Mercenaries or Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood’s online mode. But it always seems that the need for visceral animation, the need to feel powerful or scary, and the need for visual and mechanical complexity obfuscates the original goal of creating a tense and personal battle of wits. I feel like BADBLOOD succeeds in the areas these other multiplayer stealth games do not because of how its simplicity allows both players to create situations which can empower them, as well as have that power unleashed equally upon them.
For some, the relatively low amount of tangible audiovisual content may seem to make BADBLOOD a bit of a parlor trick. To make it feel like something to pull out and show off to a few friends then not look at again. However, I feel treating the game as such sells woefully short the vast level of emergent content that this game is capable of generating. BADBLOOD thrives from the situations it affords the players, and benefits from a very sound set of simple mechanics rather than from a wealth of novelty. It is horrific and exhilarating at the same time. Trash talk vanishes as both players pulse’s quicken and they focus in on how to turn the tables on their hunter. People chuckle nervously. Rooms get quiet. It creates a stage for two people to project themselves into a world that effortlessly balances extraordinary calm with striking violence and movement. It gives the competitors a set of tools and a reactive world, puts both of them in it, and affords a healthy amount of space for human instinct to create engaging moments. It revels in swiftness and cunning, just as we all used to when we’d dart in and out of the dark spots in fields and forests of our youth. We must not have really known how scary the real world is back then.
Good gaming, ladies and gentlemen.