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Vandals is like turn-based Hitman with graffiti instead of murder

Vandals puts a modern, non-violent twist on isometric strategy: instead of a pilot smashing mechs or an elite soldier shooting aliens, you're a hoodied youth stealthily tagging streets and alleys with graffiti. It's set in street art hot spots from all over the world, but your plan of attack never changes: outfox the cops, leave your mark, and make a clean getaway. Vandals is a short, snacky game, but there's enough to it for only $5. It's a cool mix of stealth and strategy, and a lot tougher than it sounds. 

You start by coming up with a short word to use as a signature, something to mark your art as yours. I went with "Tag" because I am nothing if not original. If you're only in it for the strategy, you can just auto-paint your signature word every time and call it a day, but you can also customize your signature or create freeform works using simple but serviceable tools that feel straight out of MS Paint: three brushes and eight colors, as well as a handful of fonts for your signature. 

I was usually content with coloring my signature in contrasting colors, which looking back I kind of regret because all your art is saved in a gridded catalog. I've half a mind to replay all the levels and mark each one with a piece of a bigger picture, which would combine into a single larger image in the catalog. That's something a rebellious auteur would do, right? But I'll only do it if it's something silly, like a rabbit. 

Picture a hard-boiled investigator pacing around an evidence room, loose papers and vanilla folders scattered all over the floor, a heavily scribbled map of the city on the wall, the only light source a naked light bulb gently swaying on a cord. He hunches over a desk with photos of my rabbit clips laid out in a grid in front of him. His bloodshot eyes race from its floppy ears to its bushy tail to its adorable little nose. "Where is The Rabbit!?" he shouts, slamming his fists on the desk and spilling his lukewarm coffee. Just then, his partner bursts through the door. "You're gonna want to see this," she says, exasperated. She hands the investigator a photo of my latest mark. "Tag," it reads. A crumpled cigarette falls from the investigator's lips as the color drains from his face. "You're it," he whispers. 

That's the game playing out in my head, anyway. They'll never catch me. Not as long as I have a redo button.

It's a good thing I do have a redo button, because graffiti is serious business. For starters, most levels have multiple guards you need to distract. You move one space at a time, and guards move as you move, akin to a dungeon crawler. If you get close enough, you can use your trusty whistle to lure them to your current location, then sneak around in the opposite direction like the Pink Panther. Some levels also have glass bottles you can pick up and throw to send guards on a wild goose chase, but these are scarce.

Later levels introduce things like manholes you can use to instantly move to another space on the grid, and bushes you can use as hiding spots. The kicker is that painting your graffiti will alert nearby guards, so you have to clear a route beforehand or prepare for a mad dash to the exit, both of which are fun to pull off. 

Less fun is the fact that it's not always clear what the guards are going to do next, so trial and error is sometimes required. They have vision lines in lieu of vision cones, but their hearing range is less defined, and the route they'll take when pursuing you or a distracting noise can feel random. It's also kind of annoying that you can't pass a turn—that is, let the guards move while you stay in the same place—unless you're in a hiding spot. I frequently wanted to let a guard start moving after luring him with a whistle, and walking back and forth just to pass the time feels silly. 

Luckily these are tiny gripes that don't ruin the thrill of perfecting a level. Painting and escaping is all well and good, but to master a level (earning a three-star rating), you have to escape without getting caught, complete it in a certain number of turns, and go out of your way to pick up a bonus item. Most levels are fairly easy to merely complete, but mastering them takes some doing. The Rabbit—I'm properly into this fantasy now so roll with it—ain't no chicken, so I mastered levels whenever I could. 

Apart from the added challenge, this gave me an excuse to listen to more of the game's lovely music, not to mention ample time to look for the factoids hidden in levels. Vandals doubles as a crash course on graffiti history provided you seek out its mini-history lessons, and while the translation is a bit rough, it's still interesting to learn about famous artists and their motifs. I'm already imagining what the art historians of the future will have to say about The Rabbit's escapades.