Thrilling Spontaneous Stealth Betrayed By Bugs

The last thing I expected Budget Cuts to do was to make me question my mental stability, but here I am, standing over the crumpled body of a harmless worker-bot with a pair of scissors in its back. I put those scissors there. I found myself next to this well-mannered machine and smiled at his cheery greeting, then I killed him. I watched him wave his arms in unexpected agony and then drop to the floor, lifeless. And I smiled while I did it.

See, Budget Cuts, the long-awaited VR stealth game from Stockholm-based Neat Corporation, is probably the nicest, most polite virtual world you could visit inside a VR headset. It’s a tamer Aperture Science; office spaces are lined with visual jokes about every day being Taco Tuesday and its swinging soundtrack bumbles along at a pleasant pace even when you’re on the run from its robotic guards. But it also gives you one thing a lot of other experiences don’t, something that can cancel out all that kind-hearted world-building with a single stab in the back: freedom.

It’s up to you how you make your way through the world of Budget Cuts. You can be as a ghost, albeit one that teleports, keeping to your knees as you dart between indenti-kit office cubicles, daring yourself to peek around corners to see if the coast is clear and scanning for hidden exits. Or, if you’ve got a decent throwing arm, you can take the decidedly more malicious route, locating sharp things to stab into patrolling guards, either picking them off one-by-one or doing your best Neo impression as you take everyone on at once.

These choices are what make Budget Cuts thrive; there’s a spontaneity to the last-minute backstabbing and instinctive ducking that you just couldn’t get with a gamepad in your hand. But the chaos can go both ways, and you’ll often find Budget Cuts crumbles under the weight of this ambition, too.

Take the path of the murderer, for example. If you choose to slay your way through the game you’ll see it at both its best and worst. For the former, it’s the super-slick sensation that comes with popping out from behind a corner, tossing a knife and then vanishing back behind the wall as your enemies slump to the floor. It’s just as brilliant when things go wrong within the rules of the game, though; if you miss you’ll put guards on alert and have to double back and assess your next plan.

Better yet, if you hit something non-vital you’ll see the guard yelp in pain, but give them enough time to return fire before they succumb to their wounds. Budget Cuts constantly demands you formalize and act upon ‘Plan B’ at a moment’s notice, and it keeps you on edge throughout.

On the flip side, the sheer amount of possibilities on offer can leave enemy AI confused and sometimes even dead without you doing anything. From what I’ve seen, there’s no real ramification for the body of a guard being discovered; the corresponding bot will just have a quick scan of the current room before resuming normal service. Worse still, they might trip over the body, rendering them useless, and I even saw enemies falling onto the knives I’d implanted in others and killing themselves in the process. Funny, yes, but inherently messy.

The straight stealth option is decidedly cleaner, though not without its frustrations. It’s the pure brilliance of Budget Cuts’ teleportation system that makes it possible; you fire a gun that launches a ball-shaped locator, then projects a portal showing the surroundings at your next location. You’re free to look around and make sure the coast is clear (though robots can see you through the portal), then click or hold a grip button to either jump straight there or slowly transition over. With patience, good aim and fast reactions, you can zip through any layout without leaving a trace.

Getting spotted can be more infuriating than you’d hope, though, as it’s impossible to give flight while simultaneously dodging bullets, especially since only one needs to hit to kill you on Normal difficulty.  As great as the teleportation is, it can’t keep up with these more demanding moments, meaning you’re more than likely to die if you slip up.

It takes a bit of luck for Budget Cuts to work like you’d want it to, then, but when it does click it’s quite fantastic.

The biggest problem — and ultimately the reason we’re not yet scoring the game — are the more serious bugs. At a certain point in the campaign, we encountered regular hard crashes that completely halted our progress. Initially, we thought this might just be an issue on the Oculus Rift, which also suffers from framerate drops on SteamVR, but we encountered the exact same problem on the HTC Vive, too. Other people have played through the game seemingly without encountering this problem, so we can’t speak to how widespread it might be by release, if at all.

Final Score: TBD

At its best, Budget Cuts is a gleeful stealth playground that thrives on the spontaneity it demands of players. But it’s a game that can also succumb to the weight of its lofty ambitions just as often as it realizes them. We won’t be ready to put a final score on Neat Corp’s debut until we see how its bugs work out, but right now Budget Cuts shows how far we’ve come and how far we’ve still got to go.

We should have a finalized review by the end of the week.

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