It’s fairly obvious that newcomer Sanzaru Games has poured its heart and soul into Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. The long-awaited fourth instalment in PlayStation’s premier theft simulator is bursting with reverence for the franchise that Sucker Punch introduced over ten years ago, and that’s evident in every inch of the sequel’s agonising attention to detail. But does the classic series still have the skills to perform the perfect heist, or is it on a crash course with a spell in the slammer?
In an era where most developers are actively attempting to blur the lines between digital entertainment and cinema, the resurrected platformer certainly stands out. The titular tea leaf’s latest adventure is brimming with mainstays from yesteryear: mini-games, collectibles, and hundreds of hidden items. Sadly, for all of the game’s endearing moments, it’s hard to shake the niggling feeling that it’s all been done before.
The plot picks up almost directly after the conclusion of 2005’s divisive Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves. Sly is loved up with feisty law enforcer Carmelita Fox, having feigned amnesia to get in her good books. Elsewhere, debilitated brainbox Bentley is hard at work constructing a time machine with soul-mate Penelope, while Murray is carving out a career as a demolition derby driver. Alas, it’s not long before the rambunctious raccoon’s swag bag starts scratching, and when pages from the Thievius Raccoonus – the series’ MacGuffin master thief guide book – begin to disappear, the band are pulled back together for a tantalising trip through time.
For the most part, the title sticks closely to the blueprints that the series’ original trilogy founded. Missions take place in non-linear hub-worlds, each of which represents the former stomping grounds of one of Sly’s ancestors. There are five full locales in total, spanning feudal Japan, the Wild West, medieval England, the ice age, and ancient Arabia. The sequel’s biggest new bullet point is that in addition to controlling the franchise’s core trio of characters, you’ll also get to steer the protagonist’s predecessors, who come equipped with their own interesting roster of abilities.
Tennessee Kid, for example, can switch to a classic third-person shooter perspective and pick off multiple targets in Red Dead Redemption-esque slowdown style, while Rioichi Cooper can dash between platforms using his perfectly honed ninja skills. Discovering each of the ancestors’ special moves adds to the appeal of uncovering the next hub-world, and the characters themselves are well tailored to their region’s associated stereotypes. Sir Galleth, one of King Arthur’s most prominent associates, speaks in the kind of riddles and rhymes that you’d expect from a true English gent, while the brilliantly animated caveman Bob struggles to even string a sentence together.
But each district not only includes a new character, but also a new suit for Sly to wear. Once again, these outfits are built around the district, but augment new abilities that play a pivotal role in the level design. The armour that you obtain in Japan, for instance, allows you to navigate furnaces and deflect fireballs, while the archer’s costume gives you the option to create new tightropes within the world. Unsurprisingly, you’ll need to obtain a full wardrobe in order to unlock all of the collectibles on earlier stages, adding a hint of Metroidvania to proceedings that encourages replayability.
The variety feels overwhelming at first, not just in the range of mechanics that you have at your disposal, but also because the game’s opening hours are packed with as many mini-games as possible. By the end of the first chapter you’ll have completed two heists, spent an afternoon fishing, and even completed a Guitar Hero-esque mini game in which Murray tries to distract a gaggle of lovesick swines by dressing as a period appropriate Geisha. It’s truly impressive just how much is crammed into the package, but unsurprisingly it can’t maintain the pace.
Many of the mini-games get repeated multiple times during the course of the campaign, and you’ll be delighted to see the back of them once the credits roll. Hacking is a repeat offender, as you’re frequently forced into side-scrolling shooting galas, isometric car combat levels, and poorly realised two-dimensional Marble Madness clones that take advantage of the SIXAXIS motion detection in the DualShock 3 controller. Yeah, remember that?
While undeniably quirky, each idea is repeated so frequently during the course of the adventure that you’ll be banging your head against your console by the tenth time that you encounter them. To add insult to injury, many of the arcade cabinets that you unlock after collecting a specific quota of treasure are based on the exact same mini-games – and you’ll need to set a high score on all of the cabinets in order to obtain the Platinum Trophy.
Having said that, there’s something admirable about a title that includes a fully functioning table-tennis mini-game just because it can – and not all of the mechanics are bad. One particular mission sees you competing in a slew of Winter Olympic-esque challenges in order to get the aforementioned prehistoric racoon Bob back into shape, and it’s one of the most memorable and humorous moments in the game.
The writing throughout is exceptional. It thrives on the silly style of humour that Sly Cooper has always been recognised for, but there’s a maturity to it that most comedy games struggle to achieve. Unlike, say, Borderlands 2, the game never relies on shouting, screaming, and tired memes to raise a smile – instead it focuses on fun puns and genuinely calamitous scenarios.
Furthermore, you’ll really develop an attachment to the cast. If you haven’t played any of the previous titles in the franchise, then you may not be quite as invested, but, as with the initial trilogy, the title relays an inane amount of detail about its characters. All of the villains have fully formed motives, and the credits even spend ten minutes or so relaying the activities of much of the cast after the conclusion of the plot.
With so much care and attention invested into the entire package, it’s unfortunate that the moment to moment gameplay feels a little archaic. There’s nothing wrong with the core platforming and stealth gameplay, but it quickly becomes predictable. The level design attempts to keep things interesting throughout the course of the campaign, but you’ll be traversing environments blind-folded by the end of the game. As with the previous entries, there are the usual array of unlocks and upgrades that can be purchased with the finances that you accrue, but none of these items have a particularly remarkable impact on the gameplay.
Boss fights are similarly mundane, relying on the same pattern-based mechanics that have become a chore in the industry at large. There are a handful of highlights, including a shootout against a three-headed dragon, and a skate off versus an artistic bear – but even this repurposes the rhythm action mentioned earlier in the review.
Still, at least the game looks great, with bold uses of colour creating a striking visual appearance. The art direction is exemplary throughout, with many of the enemy designs stealing the show. In the Wild West you’ll encounter cows that use their udders as machine guns, while medieval England is crawling with thuggish hedgehogs out to stab you with their spines. The game runs at a fairly solid 60 frame-per-second throughout, though it is susceptible to dips in areas of high activity – especially on the PlayStation Vita.
As with PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, you get both versions of the game for a single cost. The handheld version is virtually identical, though there is a noticeable lack of detail in some of the environments, in addition to the aforementioned performance hiccups. Sanzaru Games deserves credit for bringing the entire package to the portable platform, though, and it’s an ideal venue for the adventure. The relatively bite-sized mission structure and simple platforming makes it a perfect fit for on-the-go sessions, and the inclusion of cloud save functionality means that you’re never confined to a single device.
The title even includes a very basic riff on the cross-controller functionality that LittleBigPlanet 2 recently introduced, allowing you to find hidden items in the PS3 game by pointing the Vita at your television like a pair of binoculars. Once you’ve set the feature up – which, admittedly, can be quite convoluted – you can scour the environments to find hidden items, making the search for collectibles that bit more palatable. The only real downside is that the feature only works in co-op, as it’s difficult to hold the handheld and the DualShock 3 at the same time. We’d have preferred some kind of in-game option to help us find the hidden items, but what’s on offer is still a strong example of the interoperability potential between Sony’s current consoles.
Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is a decent adventure with some memorable moments, but it’s hampered by repetition and a lack of desire to build upon the foundations of previous entries in the franchise. There’s still enough animal magic to make this platformer worth playing, but it’s more of a petty thief than a notorious armed robber.