Some of the best games involve relatable experiences. Level 22 tells the story of Gary, a frequently tardy employee who just overslept yet again after a night of drinking; even if due to other factors, most of us can relate to being late for work and wanting to sneak in unnoticed. We can't necessarily relate to the need to use newspapers, donuts and laxatives to sneak past a variety of uniformed guards, but it's precisely those comically structured scenarios that elevate Level 22 past being a bland stealth experience to being an enjoyable trek towards the top.
The stakes are raised due to Gary's routine tardiness; if he's late one more time, he will be fired. The player is tasked with ascending the floors of Gary's office building to get to his cubicle while avoiding the labyrinth of guards and office workers that peruse the office in predetermined patterns. Luckily you have the guidance of Marty, a former employee, to help you beat the various challenges on the way to your office.
Marty chimes in via your cellphone to explain ways to utilize various tools that you'll find, such as donuts to distract security guards, coffee to short out electrical devices, and eraser launchers to divert attention. Navigating the mazes of each level with these types of items is what ultimately makes Level 22 successful: it's a silly experience that involves some strategizing to complete, and neither of those components would work as well in this scenario without the other.
Formerly released on mobile platforms, Level 22 was recently ported to several game consoles. The graphics are crisp, well-defined and look great on a television; while the game offers off-TV play, the visuals are significantly downgraded by the GamePad screen. Characters have large, blocky heads, but this is in keeping with the overall ambience of the game. Interestingly it uses larger 8-bit sprites during dialogue exchanges, which is a stark contrast to the sharp, clean style found in the rest of the game - nevertheless it also works well.
In addition to navigating past a variety of office employees, there are secret rooms, toys and safes. The toys are supposedly Marty's former stash that were dispersed around the building after he left his position, and are comically named as references to popular characters ("Blender" instead of "Bender" from Futurama, or "Solid Smack" instead of "Solid Snake" from MGS). It's simply a matter of discovering these items as well as secret rooms, but safes are another matter entirely.
Each safe requires a six digit code. The player needs to decipher clues in the environment to figure out the correct sequence; these range from simple (just finding the numbers in the environment and lining them up) to frustratingly hard (such as organizing the numbers of sequential game series that you find in various parts of a level, by release date). While some can be especially difficult, these challenges add a considerable amount of replayability.
Unfortunately, this otherwise well-crafted recipe falls apart at times. The music is sufficiently quirky and light with accents that will have you nodding along at first, but that quickly becomes stale when you realize that you have to listen to the same track for the majority of the game. This Wii U version also has some small bugs at launch; the game flew past most of the item introduction screens after finding a toy without any button press, and it froze entirely while looking at a safe, requiring a hard reset. But by far, the biggest annoyance is the implementation of controls.
The Wii U offers a nice feature where you can tap the GamePad screen (likely implemented from the original mobile version) to move your character to a specific spot - in our view, though, it just feels better to control your character using the left stick. What is beyond baffling, however, is the decision to assign your "weapons" to the d-pad directions instead of the regular face buttons.
It's hard to believe that this implementation is the default, and even more disappointing to learn that you cannot change the controls. What was the thinking behind this decision? Was the objective to make the game more difficult, or to simulate the idea that Gary cannot act quickly? It doesn't make the game more difficult, it just adds a level of annoyance. Even more confusing is that the game moves the controls for various weapons each time you use one of them up, meaning that the direction you're supposed to press is constantly changing depending on how many inventory slots are filled. Other mechanics work well, such as the use of the right stick to quickly see extended parts of the environment, so the poor use of the d-pad is a shame.
One last frustrating issue is that the first option on the pause screen is to restart a level instead of continue, which can result in needing to begin a level from scratch when intuitively pressing "a" to continue. This and the above issues could have been fixed fairly easily, and it is unfortunate that they dampen an otherwise enjoyable experience.
Despite some clunky controls and some glitches, Level 22 is an fun stealth game that adds some quirkiness to a genre that can feel stale at times. It's just the right length to avoid overstaying its welcome, and humorous aspects help the player see past what - at the end of the day - is a fairly elementary, albeit relatable, story.