There’s a lot of Boston going in Children of Liberty. Its developer is Lantana Games, a studio founded by Savannah College of Art and Design graduates that is based entirely in Boston. It concerns the failed raid on British general Thomas Gage, the man you may remember from history class as the military governor of ol’ Beantown who ordered the Intolerable Acts and pretty much set off Lexington and Concord. It also has lots of old brick walls and cobbled streets, both of which I associate with Boston.
Children of Liberty is set in the American Revolutionary War, but that’s not what it’s all about. With the era as a backdrop, Lantana Games takes a somewhat liberal but still historically accurate look at the circumstances behind what allowed Paul Revere to succeed in his storied ride the night before the shot heard ’round the world. Forget what National Treasure and Assassin’s Creed III told you; this is the story of four children and their chance to save the Sons of Liberty and the revolution.
Played from a two-dimensional perspective, the four children set out to stealth around in a three-dimensional world. Going from side-to-side, you can also maneuver between two different depths, sort of like LittleBigPlanet. You normally traverse in the foreground, but step into the background as cover where, if you enter the shadows unseen, you will be able to shimmy right by guards. You’ll have to jump and climb around oddly large crates and use whatever abilities you have to dodge the visible pyramidal vision cones of the red coats.
That particular part is very reminiscent of Mark of the Ninja, the stealth game from Klei Entertainment late last year. Mark of the Ninja aimed to remove all the frustrations of traditional stealth action games such as obfuscated or indeterminate actions and reactions by making everything discrete, a major influence on Children of Liberty.
“The visible sound in Mark of the Ninja really made that game,” says programmer Brian Wang. “It’s important in any stealth game that any actions you take and the consequences they have are extremely clear.” And for a 2D game, 3D is actually a very important part of it. “Sound will propagate around corners,” says Wang. “All those dudes at intersections and stuff should be fair game.”
Intersections meaning where two perpendicular planes of playable space meet. This is a bit like Shadow Complex in that regard where you traverse a 3D world by 2D means. At each intersection could be any number of guards either in your plane or on the one adjacent to yours and you can see where the guards are patrolling in both, allowing you to either avoid or eliminate them at your discretion.
Just don’t expect to see them. At least not yet, anyways. What I thought was a strange stealth mechanic (seeing vision cones but not the person it’s emanating from) actually turned out to be a limitation of resources. These “Saturday morning cartoon-style animations,” as animator Ricky Bryant, Jr. puts it, are all hand-drawn and they simply haven’t done the side views yet. When you or the British are head-on with the camera, you see smooth animations and classic, minimal-but-heavy line illustrations that look surreal in an interesting way against the 3D lit and rendered environment. Look down a corridor, however, and you just see vision cones since those are essentially free assets when they’re just colored meshes.
Inspiration, at least, is free, though. “Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a big one,” says Bryant. “Just the way cover was handled in that game. We knew we had to bring that in and bring up the stealth.” The art style, of course, recalls a very particular genre-bending Italian plumber. “Super Paper Mario,” says Bryant, “obviously was an inspiration. The camera movement, the game not caring about dimensionality at all.”
Ideas, of course, can’t save everything. What started out as an education children’s product for a local Boston organization, the studio eventually shifted the idea into its own thing, but they’re going up against a lot of stealth indies that are industry veterans at this point. “It’s scary,” says designer Dan Silvers. “When I look at guys like [Mark of the Ninja designer Nels Anderson] and [Monaco designer Andy Schatz], they have a lot of experience under them. They know what they’re doing. We’re still treading water, hoping to find land.”
Treading and, it turns out, iterating. Last year at PAX East, Children of Liberty, Lantana’s first real commercial title, was pretty much just platforming and only recently did they amp up the stealth aspects. “The hardest thing,” says Wang, “was getting things working, and we only crossed that hump like a month ago. Like the shark in Jaws, one day, things just started working.”
How well it’s all working, though, remains to be seen. I played a brief demo with only the Joseph character who is the most straightforward out of the four available (the other three described as a freerunner, a tank, and a ninja while the playable fellow they showed is the “classic platformer”) and came away mixed. On one hand, I loved the idea, I loved the art, and I actually loved the action of dealing with guards either in multiples or at junction points. All that combined to make for a compelling (if simplistic) stealth experience.
Where it fell apart was when you dealt with single foes. Granted, this was what felt like an introductory tutorial level, but dealing with guards one at a time was trivial. And some parts such as where you have to leap over a patrolling red coat’s vision cone was clunky; jumping and snapping to grapple points never felt all that great.
This is, however, still an alpha. With PAX East leaving them in the throes of bankruptcy, they’re trying to hawk Children of Liberty for $10. For that $10, however, you get Minecraft-like access to said alpha right now, a Steam code should they make it through Steam Greenlight, all future updates, and free DLC. At this point, Children of Liberty is a promising little gem of a stealth game. The narrative is neat, the concept is intriguing, and the art is all the way great. Now they just need to fill in the gaps and pull their lofty thoughts back into a solid product.