Stealth games are one of my favorite genres. Sticking to the shadows and making your way through the game unseen is always immensely satisfying, doubly so when seemingly-impenetrable security is finally solved. Naturally, I had to check out Koi Snowman Games’ Spirited Thief as part of Steam Next Fest.
Done right, the necessary abstractions in tactical stealth games can eliminate the more frustrating elements of the more action-based entries in the genre. There’s never any question of how a guard spotted you, and players are never reduced to relying on janky AI just to clear a level. Based on the Next Fest demo, it’s abundantly clear that Spirited Thief is tactical stealth done right.
In this pixelated heister, players take on the role of Elaj, the black sheep of the local thieves’ guild in a fantasy world. After losing his magical abilities in an accident on a job gone wrong, Elaj is stuck taking low-stakes contracts that pay very little. Thankfully, he has an ace up his sleeve – his partner-in-crime Trin, a bubbly spirit who can pass through walls with ease. The superstitious members of the thieves’ guild are uneasy around Trin and reluctant to work with Elaj on jobs, further isolating him from his peers.
Each heist in Spirited Thief is divided into two phases; the Scouting Phase and the Loot Phase. In the Scouting Phase, Trin cases the area, noting the locations of keys, loot, traps, and guards. Trin can go anywhere she can see unhindered – even peeking through a keyhole gives her access to the other side of the door. However, being an immaterial spirit she can’t interact with physical objects beyond blowing out candles. That means any loot she finds will need to be retrieved by Elaj later.
Just because Trin is ethereal doesn’t mean she’s invisible – she can still be seen by guards, and if that happens she’ll flee back to the starting point to try her infiltration again. Doing so reverses some of the scouting she’s done, meaning you’ll need to retrace your steps to make sure you have all the information you need to get in and out without being caught.
Once Trin finds the map’s objective (usually a valuable treasure of some kind), the player can enter the Loot Phase whenever they’re ready. From that point on, Elaj and the occasional teammate take over. Using the information gathered by Trin, Elaj and his crew have to navigate the map, retrieve the objective, grab as much extra loot as they can, and get out without being caught.
Thanks to standard magical alarms used by the rich and powerful, a timer starts counting down from the moment Elaj enters a restricted area; every few turns more guards will activate, continuously complicating the job. Getting out is almost always harder than getting in. Ideally, you’ll have planned your infiltration during the Scouting Phase, but the unexpected is always just around the corner.
In either phase, each character has two movement points at their disposal. Areas highlighted in blue indicate how far the character can get with their first movement point, and yellow indicates the farthest they can travel by using both points. Picking up items – including pickpocketing them off of unsuspecting guards – is free, as is activating a character’s abilities or equipment. Characters’ movement is very fluid; as long as they have the movement available and doing so won’t get them put in handcuffs, they can go just about anywhere.
When a guard notices a thief, they’ll move toward the intruder at the end of the turn. A thief who ends their turn in a guard’s line of sight is done for, but unless you’re backed up against a wall there is usually a way to maneuver your way out of getting caught. It’s only when there are multiple guards alerted that things get dicey. Luckily, the game allows you to rewind to the beginning of a turn if you need to rethink your strategy.
The demo version shows a limited number of the available gear, and all of it is useful in the right situation. Early on, you’re given the opportunity to buy an Invisibility Potion. Drinking it allows Elaj to move unseen for a few turns, making it easy to get through heavily-patrolled areas or escape a bad situation. A later recruit to the team has an artifact that allows him to swap places with a nearby person, friendly or enemy. Each ability has a cooldown, so you won’t be able to go around bludgeoning guards and magically teleporting at will; deploying these skills at the right time is the key.
The game has three basic difficulty settings and the ability to create a custom difficulty by adjusting the available number of rewinds, the speed at which reinforcements arrive, and the general aggressiveness of the guards. Aggressive guards will mercilessly hunt and kill any thief they spot, making it essential that you don’t let that happen.
Graphics & Sound
Spirited Thief‘s pixelated environments are both charming and detailed. Distinct map elements and helpful icons make it easy to assess the situation on any given turn, and the pixel-art closeups of characters in the dialogue windows are wonderful. The UI is fast and responsive, with minimal audio on inputs to let you feel like a silent shadow as you click your way around the map.
The game’s music is both quiet and tense, perfect for a stealthy story where a single misstep can spell disaster. The deep tolling of bells in the distance as the alarm is raised, the boots of guards searching for intruders, and even their sneering laughter as they trap their quarry creates an immersive experience.
It’s thanks to the game’s visuals and sound design that Spirited Thief is the rare sort of fantasy game that brings the player fully into the world with minimal exposition – no naive protagonists who need three thousand years of history explained to them, no long-winded discourse on the intricacies of the kingdom’s politics, just a group of witty criminals, some guards, and a mansion full of loot to steal.
There’s plenty of content in the Spirited Thief demo to let us know this game is going to be a (quiet) blast. Each heist introduces new mechanics and complications, and the full game should have some really devilish maps to unravel. Elaj and Trin are immediately likable protagonists, and we want to see where their story goes. Spirited Thief is scheduled for a 2022 release, though no set date is listed at this time. Stealth fans, fantasy enthusiasts, and puzzle addicts alike should all have this game on their radar, and with a clever first title like this Koi Snowman Games is definitely an indie studio to watch going forward. I would even go so far as to call Spirited Thief one of my picks for the best turn-based games of this round of Next Fest.