Review: Sly Cooper: Thieves In Time
Sly Cooper is back but does the world still want an anthropomorphic raccoon who goes around the world stealing things? Realistically the answer is no but what about in a video game? Can Sly pull off the biggest heist and steal our hearts, especially under a new developer.
- Worth The Time?Almost definitely
- Things LovedCel-shaded visuals are quite pretty and suit the PS2 era style of the game. Filled with nostalgia and charm. Some missions take truly unexpected turns and each hub world is fun to explore. Platforming is enjoyable and there's no shortage of variety in gameplay, settings or characters but...
- Things Hated...sometimes there's just too much diversity and the game lacks coherence. Serious lack of any real challenge makes the game too easy and puzzles a bore. Initially seems a bit dim-witted and takes a while to hit its stride. Load times and mini-games become a pain.
- RecommendationAnybody looking for a classic PS2 experience should look no further, unless you're looking at an HD collection. Fans of the golden age of platforming will love this.
- Name: Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time
- Genre: Adventure
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: None
- Platforms: PS3, PS Vita
- Developer: Sanzaru Games
- Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
- Price: R375
- Reviewed On: PS3
It’s a difficult thing, bringing something back from the grave but that certainly hasn’t stopped countless developers from doing so. The latest series to be resurrected is Sly Cooper, one of the bastions from an era when adventure-platformers reigned supreme. That time has long since passed and platformers seem to mostly exist on the indie scene these days but is there still place for them in this photorealistic, military shooter, games as art world we live in? It’s been 8 years since the last game, has Sly learned to adapt in that time?
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If I may, let’s talk about the developer for a second. Sly Cooper is synonymous with Sucker Punch Games but they’re currently on the inFamous train and doing quite well with that franchise so they don’t have any reason to really go back to what they were doing almost a decade ago. Enter Sanzaru Games, a studio which is a collective fan of the Sly series. They took a gamble and produced a demo level of what they thought a modern day Sly Cooper game would be like which was shown to Sucker Punch and Sony, both loved it. Sanzaru was contracted to produce the HD collection of the first three Sly games and then got the call-up to produce a game based on their demo level. It’s an incredible success story and effectively means that the entirety of Thieves in Time is a piece of fan-service by fans for fans. It’s evident in the way Thieves in Time stays very true to its predecessors, sometimes a bit too much, and also in the voluminous amount of references and easter eggs relating to previous Sly games mixed in with a multitude of pop culture references.
You may, at this point be wondering why this review is so late, international sites had it covered over a month ago and you’d be right, partially. The thing is that the game only released last week in the EU region (which we fall under). Before we go on I should also mention that this game has crossplay with the PS Vita so you can play it on your PS3, save your game to the cloud on PSN. Hop on a plane and continue the same save on the go. In fact, a purchase of the PS3 game gives you a code to download the game for vita as well. I do not own a Vita though and so was unable to test this crossplay out.
Funny enough, the game’s story parallels the real timeline quite well. I doubt this is by accident. The premise goes that Sly has been retired and living comfortably with his girlfriend Carmelita Fox for a number of years but is forced back into action when entries start disappearing from the Thievius Racoonus, the Cooper family’s book of history and family secrets. With some logical jumps it is quickly deduced that someone is going back in time and changing the course of Cooper history. Sly, the stealthy thief, must reunite with his gang comprising Bentley the tech-savvy tortoise, Murray the brute and later on Carmelita who is supposed to be hot and has a gun; together they hop around time correcting history.
If this sounds sort of like Assassin’s Creed that’s probably because it is except instead of just reliving your ancestor’s memories, you’re there with them. It’s kind of like if Desmond had to hold Ezio’s hand the entire time during AC II. Then again Ezio would’ve gotten annoyed, pushed him off a high tower and hoped there weren’t any haystacks nearby. Connor would’ve stabbed Desmond with an axe for sure.
The story is almost always an unimportant and merely divisive tool in platformers but Thieves in Time manages to spin a decent enough narrative that makes plenty of sense even if it’s short on some serious logic. For example, if someone is going back and changing Cooper family history, how does that not affect Sly in present day? Surely his personal history would then be altered, especially if someone is going hundreds of years back in time? Maybe BioShock Infinite just has me expecting a superior kind of narrative.
All those platformers which made the PS2 era so memorable were great in their time and still are great, in context, but is it possible to create a new game in that old PS2 style? Well Sanzaru took a chance with that as well and frankly I don’t think you can do a Sly game any other way. It simply wouldn’t be the same. Ratchet & Clank managed to carry its magic over onto the PS3 quite well but it was short-lived and now the series seems lost, redundant and without direction. Sly is set up as a nostalgic throwback to a time when everyone’s favourite characters were Crash Bandicoot, Jak and the Prince. A time before military shooters and hyper-realism dominated the industry. Instead it actually is a PS2 game. This is a great advantage but also holds the game back somewhat. I’ll explain as we go along, or maybe I won’t. I haven’t quite decided yet.
The game takes place episodically with each episode taking place in one of five different time periods each with its relatively expansive, explorable hub world. You can roam around each world with any of the characters, including that era’s respective ancestor once you’ve unlocked them (see: freed them from wherever they were locked up) and this not only lets you get the lay of the land but you can also pour quite some time into hunting down collectibles, bringing treasures back to the hideout. Each episode is broken down into jobs which are carried out by the various characters with one big heist or mission involving all the characters capping off the episode complete with a boss fight.
Due to the diversity of each character and their different skillset there is no shortage of variety in these jobs. Each ancestor also gets their share of game time and each one has unique abilities which set them apart from Sly himself. You get everything from recon jobs to infiltration, break-ins, collecting items from a ‘shopping list’ it’s all there, anything you’ve seen in most caper films are here. Some of the later episodes do really well to capture that Oceans 11 sort of complex schemes that slowly come together to outwit the baddy. However, the game takes too long to hit its stride in this regard and for the first 2/3 of Thieves in Time you’ll think the game is a bit dimmer than it thinks itself to be.
Mixed in among all these jobs are a myriad mini-games which do well to initially break up standard gameplay but that is already diverse enough that the addition of mini-games and the liberal use of them makes the game come off as very attention deficit to the point where it ruins the pacing. These mini-games are sometimes fun like the top down and side-scrolling shooter hacking games but for the most part they are completely random, tedious and go on for far too long.
Because of the shear amount of things going on in Thieves in Time – five different time periods, 4-5 different characters, several different job types, a number of different mini-games – there is a distinct lack of coherence at times. The game is certainly not lacking in variety and that’s great but the mini-games and their frequency really do take the diversity just a little too far.
Maybe we should just talk about those bosses that you face at the end of each level. I’m not an advocate for political-correctness. I love ‘inappropriate’ humour and frequently make jokes based on stereotypes but Thieves in Time seems obsessed with the most tired and banal stereotypes that are more out of place here than a white man in South African parliament. You’ve got a Hispanic mercenary who chugs cigars, a psychotic Eastern European thug and a Frenchman who’s defining characteristic is that he smells bad. Really, is that the best they could come up with – hackneyed caricatures? Besides this anomaly the humour is well-meant even if it’s not always that funny. This is mostly due to leaning on old jokes and tropes we’ve heard too many times before.
The boss fights themselves are good in spectacle and grandeur, increasing in scale with each episode but the fights themselves lack challenge and are a bit of a letdown. They also suffer from a problem which the entire game has. Everything is overdone. Too many stages to a boss fight, too many jobs in an episode and way too many mini-games. It’s true that the mini-games die down towards the end of the game but you’ll be sick of them by the end of the second episode already.
If you’re familiar with Sly games then you’ll have the overwhelming sense that everything is pretty much the same as you remember and that’s just about spot on. Nothing has changed. Sure the hub worlds are bigger and there are some minor new elements to gameplay but everything is still just as you probably remember right up to the game mechanics. That said the control scheme is logical and modern and controls are responsive so what you effectively have is a classic car that handles like a new one. Best of both worlds really.
It’s safe to say that there are few games quite like Thieves in Time. It’s got all the charm and nostalgic atmosphere of your favourite PS2 game but with modern underpinnings. The cel-shaded visuals are generally great although at times they just look a bit dated. Character animations are well done although at times you get odd little glitches and peculiar mouth animations. Small niggles but the overall attention to detail really makes them stand out. Perhaps it’s just that I’m very picky when it comes to cel-shaded visual styles.
Everything is familiar and yet sometimes it’s too familiar. And yet there are brief moments scattered across the game which are utterly unpredictable such as a somewhat disturbing faux burlesque type cabaret rhythm game and one boss fight where the wrong character ends up having to fight the bad guy while wearing ice-skates. Yes, there is some concerted randomness in this game despite some parts being rather predictable. It’s never too noticeable though as there’s always some variety and variance whether it be a change of character or change of setting. As such you can do the same mission type but in a different time period and with a different character so you don’t really notice it.
Bentley’s tech-focused gameplay is a perfect juxtaposition to Murray’s brawler style gameplay and these serve nicely to break up the stealthier, more platforming-oriented sections involving Sly and his ancestors. Initially stealth seems pitifully juvenile and almost token where simply avoiding the light cast by an enemy’s lantern (sometimes in broad daylight) avoids detection even though you’re a mere few metres in front of them. Later on the stealth ups the ante a little bit but for the most part it is a bit disappointing. Stealth, above anything else is something they really should’ve put some effort into given the recent resurgence of stealth games and stealth gameplay. It feels silly next to titles such as Hitman Absolution and even Far Cry 3.
The platforming however is always fun and while it remains pretty constant throughout the game, there are slight variations in each time period to shake things up a bit. This comes about through environmental differences and differences in the disguises available to Sly. There is a period specific disguise to each episode and each has unique abilities when worn. One allows Sly to jump great distances while another allows Sly to slow down time Prince of Persia style. Puzzles on the other hand may be testing to your 6 year old but they never require much brain power and are a bit of a letdown.
For series fans, let’s do a quick tally of the big three things that made Sly games great. Platforming is still great and even better with more responsive controls, stealth is initially a joke but gets better and puzzles are a letdown. Oh and load times are ludicrously long for a game like this but then that’s true to the game’s inherent PS2 nature.
You see, the game may have a modern control scheme, pretty cel-shaded visuals and bigger environments but it’s still a PS2 game in just about every sense of the word. This works to the game’s advantage in most respects as you can feel that nostalgia wash over you as time goes on but it’s also got an unmistakable charm that few other games have. It puts Thieves in Time in a good position while also making it quite a niche title, it’s only for those who are really craving a PS2 experience. However, the nostalgia can cloud the fact that this is very much developed like a PS2 game.
There are some technical bugs and issues in interacting with the environment that are very 2004 and while gameplay appears relatively constant throughout, the way in which Thieves in Time only really hits its stride past the halfway mark is indicative of a developer that was learning as they went along so the game really starts off more like a demo and then evolves into the sort of experience you were likely hoping for. It’s curious idiosyncrasies like this that reek of a bygone era when standards were lower, developers had the freedom to be more experimental and gamers on the whole were more forgiving.
Again, the boundless charm that this game has to anyone with a soft-spot for anthropomorphic-obsessed platformers is probably enough to get you to overlook a lot of this. We’re not looking at a great game here but certainly a damn good one and if you go into Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time with the right mindset, you’re likely to leave with a smile on your face.
Bonus challenge: reading this surprisingly long review is challenging enough but for extra points, why not count the number of times I used the word nostalgia or nostalgic.