Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time
The team at Sanzaru Games were huge fans of the Sly Cooper series. The problem? The heyday of the action/platformer was long past and Sucker Punch Productions, which created the series, had moved on to the darker Infamous franchise. So, Sanzaru worked up a demo level of what they envisioned as a modern-day Sly Cooper game and showed it to Sucker Punch and Sony. Surprisingly, the gambit worked, and Sanzaru was given the task of updating the original games for last year’s Sly Cooper Collection. Impressed, Sony and Sucker Punch gave Sanzaru the go ahead to create an all-new Sly Cooper adventure.
Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is the fruit of their labor, serving as both an excellent introduction to Sly Cooper for newcomers and an expertly done statement of the platformer genre’s enduring appeal.
I’ve always felt that Sly Cooper’s building-scaling, tightrope-walking platforming was an unacknowledged precursor to Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series. Appropriately, Sanzaru takes AC’s main conceit as the driving force to a well-done story in which Sly and the gang travels to different historical periods and encounter his ancestors in the Cooper clan.
A mysterious villain is stealing pages from the ancient Thievious Raccoonus book, erasing the Cooper family history. This won’t stand, of course. Sly, Murray, and Bentley turn the gang’s van into a time machine and head back to set things right. While it’s not as serious in tone as games that frequently get hailed as examples of “great game writing,” the tale is well told, fleshed out by funny dialogue, and a plot that actually makes sense in its own outlandish way. Though I’m a bit conflicted about the ending, it ranks as one of the better stories I’ve seen in a platformer.
Time travel serves as a device to deliver variety in both setting and gameplay. Through the adventure, you explore eras ranging from the Wild West to the ancient Middle East, each packed with unique gameplay, filled with secrets to uncover, and rendered in vivid detail. In each, you encounter one of Sly’s ancestors, who, after the gang frees them, becomes a playable character. From Tennessee Kid Cooper’s six-gun heroics to the brute force of Sly’s prehistoric ancestor “Bob,” each puts an interesting spin on the basic gameplay. Throw in levels where you play as the wheelchair-bound Bentley, brawling Murray, and gunslinging Carmelita, and you’ve got a remarkable amount of diversity. Hacking minigames featuring Bentley (and resembling top-down or side-scrollng twin-stick shooters) are done well, but become repetitive. The boss battles are a bit of a letdown at first, but they increase in both creativity and grandeur as you progress. While not every mission hits the mark, the action is very consistent given how much is being attempted.
While the variety ensures that the game never grows stale, the real draw is the expertly crafted platforming. As Sly, you effortlessly glide over rooftops and tiptoe across tightropes, thanks to responsive controls. You also unlock costumes that grant Sly new powers, like shooting arrows that create tightropes or the ability to slow time. However, for all the depth of movement available to the player, every action you take feels completely natural and fluid – the hallmark of good control design. The stealth elements are as you remember, along with enemy AI that feels somewhat archaic when you sneak by enemies that are just a few inches away from you just because you’re outside of their small circle of awareness.
The game also revives the cel-shaded graphical style that was the hallmark of the original Sly trilogy. Thieves in Time’s gorgeous visuals will have you wondering why the technique ever fell out of fashion. Each era has a distinct and vibrant color palette, and is brimming with detail.
After playing so many shooters in recent years, Thieves in Time’s old-school platforming is a breath of fresh air. While it doesn’t innovate, its subtle craftsmanship and varied gameplay reasserts what we’ve always known: This genre still has something important to add to the game industry. I hope this game meets with the success it deserves.
Addendum Notes on CrossPlay:
Thieves in Time is part of Sony's CrossPlay/CrossBuy program, which means that you get a free download of the Vita version with your PS3 disc (it will also be available for individual sale on Vita). You can upload cloud saves to the PlayStation Network, and continue your progress across both platforms. I played the game on each platform extensively. Generally, I would play at work on the PS3 during the day, upload my save to the cloud, download it on Vita, and continue my progress at night on the Vita. The cloud saves, in my experience, worked seamlessly, and I really enjoyed the convenience of being able to play on the go while continuing my progress.
The Vita version, while not quite at the level of the PS3 in terms of graphics, is very good-looking and an impressive piece of work. For the first time, it felt like there was very little distinction between playing on a home console or on a handheld. That's incredible. I will say that, all things being equal, I preferred playing on PlayStation 3, mostly because I'd rather play on a 46-inch HDTV than a small handheld screen. Also, some of the later boss battles were easier to conquer on PS3 just because the controller is easier to handle. Still, the fact that I'm willing to review the home console and handheld version of a game in the same review should say an awful lot.