Platforms: PS3, Playstation Vita
Release Date: February 5, 2013
Sly Cooper is a master at the art of staying hidden because it’s been a small eternity since we’ve seen him. The ringtail had a small cameo in Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale (may it rest in peace), but 2005 marked the last named entry in the series. After beautifully handling the Sly HD Collection, Sanzaru Games was given the reigns to the series to resurrect for the PS3 in the form of Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. Sanzaru Games has mostly accomplished their mission in faithfully continuing the journey of Sly and the gang, even if it was a little too faithful.
Seeding through the script for Sly 3 led to an innocent thread being the entire crux for Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. Bentley’s time machine that was constructed comes in handy as he discovers the sacred pages of the Thievius Raccoonus are dissolving away. In order to restore it back to mint condition, Sly, Bentley (the nerdy turtle), Murray (the giant hippo), and a few guests must hop into their Delorean-like van to discover some of the chapter’s origins to find out why this unfortunate phenomenon is occurring. Being such a revered and hated family, antagonistic forces appear through different areas of time only to complicate the matter.
Well, they try to. While each episode attempts to serve the overarching narrative, they don’t succeed. Every time period has its own villain, but they don’t seem to ever weave into the plot at large. Most are worth taking down simply because they are the bad guys and of course, Sly’s unbreakable moral compass doesn’t allow for such fallacies. By the time I had reached the end, I was expecting a grand revelation or some connective tissue. Alas, the reason given was beyond weak and let the entire game go out on a pathetic whimper. It felt more like a loosely connected episodic game rather than a cohesive plot.
Of course, there was a bear deeply rooted into hip hop, something obviously capable of salvaging a great deal of ill will. Nicknamed “The Grizz,” this rhyme-slanging, chain-hanging mofo displays swagger on a whole other level along with being comedy gold. His performance trumps the other villains by a long shot, making me wish more creative thought had went into the other antagonistic cast. Their introductory stories feel right in place in the universe, but their appearances after that are boring dribble barely worth acknowledging.
Despite the forgettable collection of bad guys, the Cooper gang is still one of the more entertaining crews in the platformer realm. Sly’s silver tongue, Bentley’s nerdy yet endearing personality, and Murray’s heart of gold is faithful to each’s roots and allows this cartoonish bunch to appeal to any crowd. Sly’s collection of ancestors are also charming, mainly because they pick one aspect of Sly’s personality and gracefully hone in on it. Part of this has to do with the animation, which is finally not terrible. Long ago we were forced to watch the stiff and simple animation plague the Sly Cooper franchise, but now we are treated with fluid and exaggerated movements fitting for this cartoon-like visual style.
The cartoony style bleeds into the cutscenes and then more into the actual in-game graphics, making the game a visually stunning piece of moving concept art. Cutscenes seem to influenced by two-dimensional, Saturday morning cartoons and are so ridiculously delightful, making it literally impossible to not crack a smile at the ludicrous emotions expressed by the characters on-screen. In-engine scenes cut to a cel-shaded look and are marvelously joyous to gaze upon. A simple, colorful art direction is an aspect respectfully conserved from the old PS2 games and has been made even better by PS3 hardware (even if the load times are excruciatingly long and the framerate can lose stability in some instances).
Although the art style is one of the few aspects actually made better by the leap in technology. In the introductory chapters, I found the familiarity of the controls and overall style like wearing a comfortable pair of shoes. Pick pockets, steal treasure, jump and hit the circle button; it was all something I had grown to love since the original game. Sadly, as I progressed, it lost some of the glamor and began to painfully tread into rehash territory.
The formula here is essentially the same as it always was from Sly 2 onward: Sly’s acrobatics are the highlight; Bentley, Murray, and supporting characters are mediocre at best; and mini-games are monotonous. It isn’t broken (in fact, it still is quite playable), but not much has been done to elaborate on established systems or drastically overhaul others. Just about everything on the docket has been done to death in Sly 2 and Sly 3, without any added depth or perks a sequel should add. Sneaking is still overly simplistic, especially since the enemies have been made nearly blind and less lethal, and combat, while some new moves have been added, isn’t anything to gather excitement over. Very few aspects have an actual place within the game’s world. For example, the five of Sly’s costumes should be the differentiating factor, but they rarely utilized and hardly become more than “keys” for different “doors.”
Part of this lackluster performance has to do with the absence of any challenge. The Sly games have never been known for difficulty but Thieves in Time takes this to an extreme. It starts out fairly standard with all of the nearly-automatic platforming you’d expect, but through the upgrade system, you’ll gain access to moves that break the game. Shields, screen-clearing attacks, and infinite smoke bombs are among the few items you’ll purchase that destroy even the slightest hint of a challenge that wasn’t even really present from the outset. You’d think that with this absolute power, Sanzaru would place more difficult sections, but they do not. Instead, they opt to annoyingly toss in instant fail states and crappy mini-games, which never makes anyone happy.
Part of the reason Thieves in Time makes a good first impression is because it places its best feet forward in the first few chapters. Mission design, the hilarious parts, and the best of Sly’s playable ancestors are front-loaded, meaning it halfway fools you into thinking that this quality would sustain for the duration of the game. At about the third hub world, the game begins to make it all too apparent that it has run clean out of new ideas and begins to feel like a painfully iterative and rushed product. The trite missions and mini-game laced activities tossed in the latter half reek of bad, thoughtless game design and fail to bring out the best aspects of the playable characters. Because of this and the prior reasons, it can feel as though the game is crashing down partway through the second act, leaving an unpleasant aftertaste.
Problems notwithstanding, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is a flawed, yet incredibly charming entry in the series full of highs and lows. Thieves in Time doesn’t do much in vein of innovating nor does it add any nuance or challenge to a fault, but the charisma, visual style, and first couple worlds allow it to not become a complete waste of time a la Sly 3. There are far better (and worse) platformers out there, but this one is still worth a look, even if this one did come right out of a PS2 design document.
+Collecting bottles, snatching treasures, and pickpocketing are all still enjoyable
+The Cooper gang is an entertaining bunch with some truly hilarious instances
+Lush visuals that dazzle because of the slick art style and the animation is spot-on
+There’s a hip hop bear
-Frequent, long load times and small framerate skips
-Too similar to past entries
-Story doesn’t do anything interesting and mission structure is bland
-Painfully easy especially as the game progresses