Platform: PlayStation 3Publisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentDeveloper: Sony Computer EntertainmentCategory: 3D
In an age where gaming is defined by brutal headshots and action oriented gameplay, new releases of platform adventure games are depressingly few and far between. The Banjo Kazooies and Psychonauts of the world have been replaced by your Uncharteds and your Gears of War. If it’s not an HD collection of an old PS2 classic or a horribly botched attempt at reviving a series with a different spin (Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts), there are shockingly few new 3D platforming games on the market today. And that’s why the prospect of a new, traditional Sly Cooper game is so exciting to a gamer like me.
Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is the fourth installment in the Sly Cooper series and the first to debut on current generation consoles. Sucker Punch has given the reins and their blessings to Sanzaru Games, who handled the HD remastering duties of the Sly Cooper games back in 2010. The result is an incredible achievement, especially given that Sly Cooper’s PS2 brother and sister series have either fallen by the wayside in favor of more hyper-realistic adventures (Jak and Daxter) or tried to change its formula so much that it wound up alienating its entire fan base (Ratchet and Clank).
But rather than taking the easy way out and just calling this a reboot or trying to move the series in a drastic new direction, Thieves in Time turns out to be exactly what it should always have been: the next game in the Sly Cooper series. The game is the perfect progression from Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves and might even surpass Sly 2: Band of Thieves as the franchise’s best installment. Picking up right where 2005’s Sly 3 left off, Thieves in Time doesn’t skip a thing and feels like an early 2007 or 2008 PS3 title, complete with Sixaxis-controlled mini-games. That may seem like a criticism at first, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Most indie developers these days are so caught up in trying to recapture the retro feel of the NES and Super Nintendo that it’s easy to forget that similar magic of the early PS3 life cycle. Now of course, this doesn’t mean that Thieves in Time feels dated. The game’s cartoony graphics are absolutely stunning and Sly never looked so good slinking through the darkest of alleys and perching atop the highest of peaks.
Following the events of Sly 3, Sly Cooper is living in Paris with his girlfriend, Inspector Carmelita Fox, who thinks Sly has amnesia and that his thieving days are done. But it isn’t long before Sly’s thieving habits get the best of him once again and he heads out with his old pals, Bentley the tech-savvy turtle and Murray the macho hippo, to perform another heist. One thing leads to another and the Cooper Gang is sent on a quest through time and space to stop an evil skunk named Le Paradox from wiping out the entire Cooper family history. The heart of the Sly Cooper series has always been the unbreakable friendship between Sly, Murray and Bentley and Thieves in Time is no exception. The story is heartwarming and engaging and the returning voice actors do a wonderful job with the script and all the twists and turns along the way. Also following the tradition of the series, Carmelita has yet ANOTHER new voice actor, but I won’t really get into that, because I still have a hard time keeping track of them all myself.
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: I am one of those people who LOVES collecting things in video games and searching every nook and cranny before moving on to the next level to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I was crushed when I found out Sly 3 did away with the series’ trademark clinking green bottle collectibles, because it removed any incentive to explore the game environments; as a result, I barely even remember what most of them were. But, in Thieves in Time Sanzaru makes up for that misstep in a big way. Not only have the bottles returned, but there are also more hidden treasures for you to snag and race back to your hideout with and the new addition of Sly Masks, which are the toughest of all the items to find, but also net the coolest rewards.
One of the biggest problems with Sly 3 was that the game tried to do too much, too fast and the result was a hodgepodge of different styles that never really found a clear direction. In addition to Sly Cooper and his friends, you also get to play as a bunch of other characters in the game, but you never have enough time to spend with any of the new additions to fully grasp their different mechanics. You mostly just slog through their sections until you get to play as Sly again. Luckily, this isn’t the case with Thieves in Time. While you’ll still play as Murray, Bentley and even Carmelita Fox for the occasional mission here and there, it’s clear that the emphasis has been refocused to what made the first games in the series so great: more Sly Cooper, Master Thief. His name IS in the title after all! Without giving too much away, you’ll also get to play as a number of Sly’s funny ancestors through different periods in time. While each ancestor has their own set of unique, special skills, their movements and controls are still inherently Sly, so players will feel right at home and it always keeps things interesting.
Another big part of Thieves in Time is unlocking different costumes and disguises for Sly to wear: each of which comes with their own set of abilities and lets you access new areas you couldn’t get to before. For instance, the jailbird outfit lets you drag around a giant ball and chain, which you can use to bust through cracked walls or balance on top of to roll across hazardous areas (á la Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg). The tiger skin costume lets you leap over gaps by clawing onto an unsuspecting enemy or mannequin standing on the other side. Switching back and forth between costumes is a breeze and in the later levels, you’ll be in for some multi part environmental puzzles that utilize all of them.
But the greatest strength of Thieves in Time is that the gameplay is incredibly varied and you’ll never come across two missions that are exactly alike. One minute you’ll be in a heated third-person shooter segment and the next you’re scaling elaborate wall puzzles in the vein of God of War. That’s not even to mention the series’ trademark platforming gameplay, which seems to be going the way of the dinosaurs you’ll find in Episode 3. There’s also a ton of fun hacking mini games that resemble your average PSN downloadable title and even an old-school arcade game you can play in each different hideout. The time traveling aspect let the developers play with some truly diverse and imaginative settings; from Feudal Japan, to a prehistoric Ice Age and even a Medieval English circus. Everything is fresh and exciting and feels like it belongs in a Sly Cooper game.
In fact, the game gets better the more it goes on, as you unlock all the costumes and begin to retrace your steps and explore those previously unreachable areas for some other fun surprises. The game lets you fast travel with ease between the five major hub worlds, to pick up any stray bottles or Sly Masks you may have missed and to try out your newly-acquired outfits in places you didn’t have them before. Where Sly 2 tended to drag on a bit towards the end, almost to a fault, Thieves in Time hits the sweet spot of game length. Admittedly, the slowest parts of Thieves in Time are the prologue and first episode, but once the game really opens up past Feudal Japan, there’s simply no slowing down for Sly and the Gang.
There are only two main issues that I have with Thieves in Time. The first is the game’s loading screens. To put it bluntly, I’ve played PS1 games that could load faster than Thieves in Time and there’s just far too many of them to keep it from being noticeable. The other problem is the constant, interruptive cut scenes that literally occur every time you reach the next checkpoint in a mission. Sometimes I found myself avoiding the next objective, because I just didn’t want to sit through another cut scene of Bentley methodically explaining things I already knew or didn’t want to hear. Granted, the cut scenes are all fairly short, but there are still a lot of them and they tend to interrupt the game’s action at regular intervals. Yes, the story is endearing, but Bentley’s slow, nasally voice can get annoying, really quickly.
Today’s developers should take a serious lesson from Sanzaru Games in how to revitalize a video game series and give it new life, while both allowing the gameplay to progress and giving fans exactly what they wanted to get out of the game. While Sly Cooper wasn’t their IP to begin with, you can tell just by playing that everyone at Sanzaru were fans of the original series and so they wound up making the game they wanted to play. And to that I say thank you, because Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is exactly the game I wanted it to be.