Discussion Review: Sly Cooper: Thieves In Time

Review written by Matt Litten & Aaron R. Conklin

SlyCooperThievesInTime

Aaron: Here are some things that happened in 2005: Hurricane Katrina reduced New Orleans to a soupy, flooded mess. George W. Bush started his second term. The Patriots edged the Eagles in the Super Bowl.

And the PlayStation 2’s last Sly Cooper game, Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves, was released in late September.

As you can see, eight years is and can feel like an awfully long time, especially in the world of gaming. Hell, the PlayStation 3 was more than a year away from seeing the light of store shelves in 2005. In that sense, it’s odd—or cosmic, depending on how you choose to look at it–that Sanzaru, the development team assigned the task of picking up where Sucker Punch left off, has waited until the final year of the PlayStation 3’s solo stint on the gaming stage to revisit the wacky exploits of gaming’s only raccoon master thief. Maybe, like Harry Potter’s golden snitch, Sly’s only meant to open at the close.

Odder still is that playing Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time actually doesn’t give the sense that eight years have passed at all. It kinda looks like a PlayStation 2 game, and it often kinda plays like one as well. And while neither of those things is a reason to not dive and give it a whirl, the game’s tendency to look backward rather than forward seems (you guessed it) yet another odd choice.

The game is a hot mess of ridiculous slapstick, beginning with its plot device—pages of the Thievius Raccoonius, the Cooper family history/encyclopedia of larcenous tricks and strategies are mysteriously vanishing. So naturally this means Sly, Murray the Hippo and Bentley the Turtle have to travel back in time to prevent Sly’s ancestors from being zapped. The upside is that this allows Sanzaru to deploy some truly spectacular and well-constructed open-world levels, each of which you’ll explore exhaustively before you’ll time-jump your way to the next one. The downside is that the game’s structure ends up feeling like a million random task quests framed by a larger one.

This wouldn’t be an issue if each mission were a logical step toward the goal of taking down each level’s cartoon-caricature boss, but too often, that’s not the case. Obviously, each of the main characters has a signature gameplay style—Sly’s about stealth and platforming, Murray’s about punching and throwing things, and Bentley’s about reconnaissance, sniping and hacking—but Sanzaru has also tossed in what feels like a bazillion different minigames into the mix here, and some of them just don’t fit that well. Side-scrolling shooting and tilting SixAxis shenanigans are one thing, but when I suddenly found myself pressing buttons in a rhythm game to make Murray dance on stage in a geisha get-up, I found myself wishing the designers had opted for more focus rather than padding the action with everything and the SixAxis sink.

Tooling around the worlds sure is a blast, though, whether it’s the take on ancient Japan, the Wild West, the Jurassic Age or Ye Olde England. As befits a Sly game, each one features plenty of hidden objects to collect, which is just one more reason to spend extra time jumping between trees and rooftops admiring the level design. On the PS3, it looks like a glowing Disney animation come to life.

One thing’s sure: You’d be hard pressed to find a better gaming bargain. Thieves in Time is one of Sony’s cross-buy titles, which means that for 40 bucks, you get both the PS3 version and a voucher to download the PlayStation Vita version. Assuming it works—in the first weeks of release, there were a few technical issues—a cross-save function lets you take your PS3 game on the road on your Vita, which, you know, actually fulfills one of the key functions the Vita promised at launch. I could wish the Vita graphics were half as pretty as the PS3’s but what can you expect?

Matt: Unless I’m completely misreading your tone, it sounds like you’re somewhat disappointed that Sly is sticking to his 2005 roots. I’m certainly not, as even after all these years I’m hard pressed to think of a more well-rounded platformer than Sly’s last caper. As far as I’m concerned, the only crime here is that it took this long into the PS3’s life for Sony to finally pay proper HD respect to what I would consider one of the PlayStation brand’s most under-appreciated mascot stars. Of course, from another perspective I guess you could say Sly edges out his platformer pals Ratchet, Clank, Jak and Daxter, being the first of the lot to appear on the Vita.

I sense that you probably spent more time with the PS3 version, but I found myself drawn to tip toeing and pick pocketing on the Vita. I agree that the game’s portable iteration does lose the bold black outlines that make the cel-shaded visuals pop on an HD set, but on its own merits the Vita version still looks great and has all the Saturday morning cartoon charm the Sly Cooper games are known for. Both versions are great, and I love how effortlessly I can transition progress back and forth between the two thanks to the wonders of cross-save. But for whatever reason the controls feel more intuitive on the Vita than with a DualShock, particularly the touch elements for pulling out the binoculars or switching Sly’s costumes. The tilt-control elements and heavy dose of mini-games also seem more at home on a portable.

Although gimmicky, another neat benefit to the cross-platform connectivity is the ability to sync the two devices together at the same time and use the Vita as an augmented reality second-screen radar while actively playing on the PS3. The technology is roughly implemented, but it’s an awesome feature to have for post-game collectible hunting. Without x-ray vision, some of the peskier clue bottles and secret treasures are incredibly tough to spot.

Fundamentally, nothing has changed since last we saw Sly. The dapper thieving raccoon still hops and bops with the best of them, slinking, tight-roping and paragliding through open-world hub levels, using his legendary cane to steal gold coins from the pockets of patrolling animals or give the critters a good whack, should they spot him. Sly does have plenty of other tricks up his sleeve though. With lifted loot, he can hit the online ThiefNet market to pick up extra skills like smoke bombs and powerful one-hit stealth takedowns, and as he ventures through time he also picks up costumes that tie in with solving various puzzles and accessing previously off-limits areas. In prison garb for example, he can use his ball and chain to slam into heavy blocks or as a rolling vehicle to navigate floor laser traps. In archer mode, he goes all Robin Hood, using pinpoint bow and arrow shots to create tightropes leading to new areas on the map, and as an Arabian thief he can chop through chains with a giant scimitar or slow down time, Prince of Persia style.

The wealth of gameplay styles doesn’t end there either. Bentley and Murray are back on the job, loyally at Sly’s side, but so are half a dozen other playable characters. Each era in time Sly and the gang travels to is met by one of Sly’s master thief ancestors. Sly’s family tree is an eclectic mix of valiant knights, ninjas, Wild West gunslingers, cave-raccoons and Arabian pirates, each lending their unique talents to the team after they’ve been found or rescued from captivity. With so many characters and so many subsequent variations in play mechanics, the game tosses some new wrinkle at you up until the stinky Cyrille Le Paradox has been put in his place.

I do agree that the game falls victim to jack-of-all-trades syndrome at times as it shoves in little mini-games where they simply aren’t needed. Some, like Bentley’s array of computer hacking twin-stick shooter levels, are a nice change of pace, but others, such as the Murray in geisha drag dance-off you already pointed out, Aaron, seem needlessly tacked on for comic relief rather than compelling gameplay. (Though you have to admit his ice skating rhythm battle against the Grizz, a hip-hop grizzly bear who looks like Baloo from Jungle Book, is completely bonkers, in a good way.) Murray actually gets a raw deal throughout much of the game as his starring moments are consistently the weakest. His beat-‘em-up throw-downs are head-noddingly easy and at one point he’s even subjected to whipping Sly’s Neanderthal ancestor back into climbing shape using just about every casual iOS mini-game mechanic imaginable. (Yes, even a whack-a-mole knock-off.)

Aaron: Timing may be part of my reaction—it wasn’t too long ago that we were treated to an HD-updated three-pack of Sly’s PlayStation 2 exploits. With a (much-belated) move to a more high-powered platform, I was expecting more, and I got it. It’s just that the developer’s definition of “more” also included a pickup truck filled with minigames and boss-battle padding.

But it’s also more than that. You mentioned the game’s Saturday morning cartoon charm, and I think that inadvertently gets at the core of what’s not quite connecting. In 2013, I appreciate the Sly Cooper experience in the same way I appreciated Hong Kong Phooey, Grape Ape and the Superfriends—as artifacts of a particular era. If Cartoon Network or Comedy Central resurrected them as new shows today, I’d want my tasty blast of nostalgia, but I’d also want a fresh take that brought a new perspective to the table. This is an era in which our definition of stealth-platforming is defined by the likes of Sam Fisher and Ezio Audiore. Sly may be a cartoon raccoon, but that doesn’t mean the stakes and expectations haven’t changed. Straight-up nostalgia only gets you so far.

I will give Sanzaru major props for the game’s control scheme. Not only is every tightrope walk and rooftop run a thing of controlled beauty, but the icon/radar system does a great job of making sure you know which sub-mission needs to be knocked off next. In a game with a level design that requires you to explore and revisit nearly every inch of the open-world levels, it’s nice to have an additional reason to track down every single collectible bottle and mask.

I have to say I was awfully surprised by how easy the game often is. Swiping coins from enemy pockets is as satisfying as ever, but it’s also utter child’s play. And sneaking past guards whose sphere of vision is both short and clearly defined never really made me feel like much of a master thief.

Thieves in Time is by no means a disappointing game, and yet its lack of focus holds it back from living up to its full potential. Given the huge amount of console and portable play you’re getting for $40 bucks, complaints like this seem somehow, well, cheap.

Aaron-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Unbelievably detailed environments are a joy to jump around and explore
+ Ridiculous variety of gameplay styles
+ Cross-platform play for $40? Yes, please

Cons:
– Sly’s vibe remains firmly stuck in 2005
– Minigame madness is a textbook case of more content translating to less enjoyment

Matt: Since completing Thieves in Time, I’ve taken my own trip into the past by revisiting the Sly Cooper HD trilogy. Those games are platforming classics and still hold up incredibly well, but Thieves in Time has enough modern refinement to make its PS2 forebears look and feel outdated by comparison. I’m always a bit weary of new developers taking control over franchises that other studios were founded on (newer Spyro games have never been as good as those made by Insomniac, Crash Bandicoot went running straight downhill once Naughty Dog moved on, etc.), but I have to tip my cap to Sanzaru Games for continuing the tradition and spirit of Sucker Punch’s original trilogy and even improving on it in many ways. Sanzaru did add more of everything – more characters, more abilities, more costumes, more collectibles, and more levels – but except for a few mini-games the constant barrage of shifting play styles maintains balance and proper pacing throughout. It doesn’t feel like they just added more content for the sake of adding more content.

Above all else, Thieves in Time is a triumph of video game level design. The open world hub areas are so lively and intricately laid out that you’ll be snooping back through the game for at least a dozen hours trying to find every last clue bottle and complete all of the time trial treasure runs. Unlike you, I thought the mission tasks built up to the final heists/boss showdowns beautifully. Villains will need to be silently tailed, reconnaissance will need to be performed, ancestors will need to be rescued, and by the end, each member of the thieving team will play some role in Bentley’s elaborate ‘Chalk Talk’ mission strategy. The way he lays out his master plans like a nerdy, reptilian Danny Ocean only adds to the charm.

Is the game easy? Yeah, kind of, but I never found it to be too easy in a detrimental way. There is a graceful ease to the controls that probably makes the game feel easier than it actually is; unlike some other mascot platformer stars, Sly and his pals are never battling with poor camera angles or exaggerated character momentum. To me the level of difficulty feels right on for a game about anthropomorphic cartoon animals bouncing to and fro and cracking wise with cheesy one-liners.

Overall, I don’t think you’re giving this game quite enough credit for how well made it is. It’s so much more than a nostalgia trip, and it has way more to offer than bang-for-the-buck value (cross-buy sure is nice though). For me it’s not some glorified PS2-era reboot, it’s an exquisite demonstration of 3D platformer game design that transcends generations. Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is expertly crafted and straight up a joy to play. It may not be able to resonate with the unforgettable emotional impact of blockbusters like BioShock Infinite and Tomb Raider, but by year’s end I know I’ll look back on Sly’s return to gaming as one of the brightest moments of 2013.

Matt-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Intricately detailed open-world hub areas chock full of collectibles
+ Constantly shifting characters and play styles means there’s never a dull moment
+ Super tight, silky smooth controls
+ Saturday morning cartoon vibe is equal parts cheesy and charming
+ One of the best examples yet of cross-connectivity between PS3 and Vita

Cons:
– A few cheaply tacked on mini-games
– It took nearly a decade for this game to come into existence

Game Info:
Platform: PS3 and Vita
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Sanzaru
Release Date: 2/5/2013
Genre: 3D Platformer
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1
Source: Review copies provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!