It’s not very often you find a game that turns a simple tap of the A button into a harrowing, sphincter-clenching ordeal. SpyParty does exactly that. Developer Chris Hecker describes it as a “tense, competitive spy game”. He’s not wrong.
The majority of my matches so far have been against my brother. The ultimate rivalry. We use a voice chat program during our bouts, but I’ve become so competitive that I mute my microphone at the start of each round for fear that the clicks and taps of my controller will give me away. SpyParty seems so suave and sedate on the surface you might assume it’s just a well-dressed snooze-fest, but beneath the swanky superficials lies an incredibly tense and wildly addictive beast.
SpyParty is difficult to describe using standard game-reviewer lexicon. It’s not a real-time strategy game but you absolutely must play strategically. In real time. And it’s not an action game, but so much happens during each four-minute round there’s barely time to blink. For the sniper, it’s a first-person shooter, but one that’s more about careful observation than straight up blasting fools. So more Pokemon Snap than Call of Duty?
Forget it. Labels and comparisons are clearly useless here, so I’ll just explain the damned thing. Controlling the spy, one player attends an upper class social occasion in third-person perspective. They attempt to complete a handful of classic spy-ish missions while posing as a guest. Their opponent plays in first-person as the sniper, keeping watch over the entire event in the hope of discovering the spy’s identity and assassinating them. The venues are all relatively small so there’s absolutely nowhere for the spy to hide. Some of them feature cornered or circular designs but the sniper is never more than a couple of steps away from gaining line of sight. This makes for a very uncomfortable environment for an undercover agent. But there’s work to be done and very little time.
SpyParty recently entered Steam early access, although the playable beta has been available and updated regularly since 2013.
Shaken and stirred
Playing as the spy, this game is stressful. I would say traumatic, but it’s too much fun for that. You don’t finish a match with shaky hands and PTSD. Just a sigh of relief and a sweaty pit.
Each round lasts for four minutes, during which the spy attempts to complete three to five missions, depending on the rules set beforehand. For the first few games as the spy, you might genuinely be too petrified to attempt any missions. It feels like literally any move you make will swiftly earn you a VIP ticket to the big cocktail party in the sky. But once you find the courage to stretch your legs a bit, you’ll find that, unless there’s an ultra expert manning the sniper rifle, you can wander around pretty freely without drawing attention. It’s fairly easy to imitate the AI’s movement, since you only have two speeds; standing and walking. There’s no complicated acceleration or momentum to mimic.
Taking care of missions while you wander, on the other hand, ain’t easy. Mechanically, it’s a doddle. Just stand in the right place and press the action button. But executing an action initiates an associated animation or sound effect. Some of them are ‘hard tells’ which, if spotted by the sniper, instantly reveal your identity. Others can be used by the sniper to ‘lowlight’ certain guests, which effectively removes them from the list of suspects. Contacting the double agent, for example, produces no animation, but triggers a little voice sample of Chris Hecker saying the code word: “banana bread”. Obviously. The spy can only shout the code word while in a conversation circle, so any guests not conversing at the time can be immediately lowlighted.
The sniper’s rifle projects a red dot sight that’s visible to the spy and therefore one of the keys to completing missions unnoticed. It’s essential to get hard tells out of the way when you notice the laser snooping around a distant area of the map, or when your animation is blocked by other guests. Even so, the sniper has a reasonable field of vision around the red dot sight when not looking through the scope, so the spy is never totally safe. With such swift and dire consequences for slipping up, there’s constant pressure to figure out new strategies to confuse your opponent. It’s one of the most addictive aspects of the game. You get a subdued but welcome sense of empowerment when you start to understand the nuances of all the missions.
The stress of spying is probably at its peak when the laser sight suddenly lands right on your character. I’ve never had someone put a gun to my head in real life, but I can’t imagine it’s any more stressful than the Spy Party equivalent. It just can’t be. Sometimes the red dot just hovers over you for a few seconds while the sniper either highlights or lowlights you. Sometimes it’s just there to see how you react. And other times, it’s there to make the kill. You never quite get used to that.
For the sniper, the game is more tense than stressful. If you take your eye off the action for a second you might miss an incriminating animation or an all-important banana bread moment. It tests your memory, your observational skills, and your ability to multitask. This intense focus eventually causes you to second guess everything. Did you really just see that dude in the wheelchair bug the ambassador? Hold on, is that Queen Elizabeth seducing Helen Mirren? Occasionally the AI bumps into other guests in a really clumsy way, which looks like a dead giveaway the first time you see it. After confidently, maybe even smugly blasting that innocent party-goer away, you’re forever hesitant to use the occasionally janky movement as a clue.
Spy vs. spy
There’s something innately hilarious about playing SpyParty with a good friend. It’s just endlessly entertaining to watch the guests mull around, knowing that one of them is your buddy trying to dupe you. Which one are you, you shit bag? The more you play with the same person, the more you pick up on subtle behaviours that give them away. Often you’ll go on a little streak of wins and get cocky, only to then hit a bad patch when they suddenly realise what’s happening and switch up their play style.
Taking on a new opponent feels like more of an event. You desperately want to avoid looking like a bumbling Johnny English type, so there’s more at stake. Luckily, I’ve found the SpyParty community to be fun, friendly, helpful opponents. Chris Hecker is very active on Twitter and the game’s official forum. He encourages veterans to pass on advice to new players wherever possible. Seems like a good bloke.
Agent vs. 00 agent
SpyParty has a high skill ceiling. I don’t know exactly know how high since I can’t actually see it from my current level, which gives you some idea of the scale. During your first 10, 20, maybe 30 matches, you’ll make countless micro discoveries. How long it takes to contact your double agent. What the spy’s microfilm transfer animation looks like. Hey, if I purloin the guest list for my final mission, the sniper will only have 10 seconds to realise! And so on.
From there, you continue to make discoveries and spot new patterns, albeit subtler ones. You can imagine the disparity between some SpyParty savant with hundreds of hours logged and an enthusiastic newcomer with nary a handful of games to their name. They’d get the excitement head-shotted out of them faster than you can say banana bread.
All of which explains why the developer recommends you take your first steps into the party with an equally inexperienced plus one. If you make all of those early mistakes and discoveries together, it feels more like sport than slog to get completely comfortable with the mechanics and basic strategies. You could just rely on the tutorial alone, but there’s no better way to find your feet than with a similarly bungling dance partner.
Should you buy it?
If you like fun games, you should buy it. Despite being in early access, the triumphant SpyParty core is fully functional, and it looks and feels great. Some of the flavour features like character profiles are yet to be fleshed out, and there’s currently only one game mode. But that one game mode already has enough depth to provide countless hours of intense, hilarious espionage.