Talk about finding a niche for yourself: Jonathan Whiting is perhaps my favourite developer when it comes to making games that are all about running away from things. First he created Antagonist, a platforming nightmare in which you're chased by a succession of horrible purple diamonds. Now he – along with designer Alan Hazelden – has come up with Traal, a peculiarly tense stealth-'em-up that casts you as an energetic coward exploring a dungeon filled with monsters.
Being powerless and scared is a staple of any good sneaking game, but Traal provides an extra brilliant twist. In most stealth scenarios, you're purely focused on making sure the enemies don't see you: in this one – as the sci-fi reference in the title suggests – you have to avoid your character seeing them as well.
This turns out to be more straightforward than it sounds: you play the game by moving through each screen's sickly green tunnels, and keeping an eye on your cone of vision as you go. If you do end up locking eyes with a monster, you temporarily lose control of Traal's protagonist, as he freaks out and runs in the wrong direction. At first this is merely annoying, but in rooms riddled with spikes, it can be extremely hazardous.
In rooms filled with ice blocks, however, it can actually be useful, as it's your sole means of charging through these temporary barriers. It's a lovely reversal, and it's not the only one, either. As the game progresses, you'll eventually unlock a blindfold, which allows you to wander around without having to worry about your vision cone at all. The only problem, of course, is that you can no longer see the landscape or the monsters.
Traal's objective is collect a series of scrolls and beat it to the dungeon's exit, but the theme of the piece seems to hinge on exploring the relationship between the player and his on-screen avatar. You may tell him where to go, but you won't have the same kind of connection to him that you have when you're pushing a Mario or a Sonic around one of their levels. That's because Whiting and Hazelden are at pains to point out that what you're seeing is always very different to what he's seeing. It's a third-person game that explores contradictions that most third-person games are happy just to capitalise on, in other words – a design decision that ensures Traal's as clever as it is frightening.