Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time | Review
Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is a Twilight Zone-esque lesson in the dangers of nostalgia.
When the creators of a beloved property decide they’re moving on, sometimes it’s hard for loyal fans to see why. Just take a look at me circa 2008. “What do you mean, they’re making some dumb superhero game instead of Sly Cooper 4?!” Perhaps I was too hasty. The inFamous games are legitimately fantastic, and I’m glad Sucker Punch was off creating them instead of going back to a franchise that should’ve remained in the PS2 era. Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is an excellent cautionary tale for what happens when dormant franchises are revived with no changes by an entirely new dev team. The only thing you get from games like this are sighs of disappointment and a few holes in your nostalgia.
And I mean only a few. Thieves in Time is not the best Sly Cooper game; that award still belongs to Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves. When a new gameplay concept was introduced in Sly 3, it stuck around for entirety of the corresponding episode. That worked, especially when the concept was entertaining and worth doing. Every Sly Cooper game had their share of minigames, but they never got overwhelming. I still maintain that, lack of graphical fidelity aside, Honor Among Thieves is a legitimately fantastic game. I cannot say the same for Thieves in Time. Ironically, time is the greatest enemy of this game. Well, that and poor design choices.
The one thing about the Sly Cooper series that age can never snuff out – the series’ excellent sense of humor – is not only on display, but has actually been refined. Both the in-game character animations and traditionally animated cutscenes deal in humor through subtle character movements. At worst, I merely chuckled. Perhaps this knack for comedy should have been applied to Thieves in Time’s many stereotypical characters. The rapping graffiti artist black bear character managed to offend me, despite my near-transparent skin. I can’t imagine how that must feel if you’re an African-American. Or Japanese. Or Latino, Spanish, Indian (not Native American), and French. So I guess if you’re white, you can play this game without feeling like somebody out there hates you. I don’t mean to imply that genuine hate was the cause of these stereotypical characters, but it’s certainly lazy at best.
Speaking of poor writing, there was a particular mid-game twist that was implemented like a brick to the face. It felt like the person in charge of Episode 4 really hated a particular character from the series’ past, and decided they would ignore everything about said character just to further a personal agenda. The ending is equally poor, with a surprising lack of closure for some of the main characters. Also, do you guys seriously expect me to unlock every trophy to get the real ending? Screw you. This isn’t a story-intensive visual novel; you haven’t earned a True Ending.
Part of the reason I absolutely refuse to go for 100% completion is ironically one of Thieves in Time’s best assets. The game is beautiful, both graphically and in terms of assets. Each individual episode has a unique open-world-esque hub with a few hidden Clue Bottles and enough guards patrolling the area to make getting to missions interesting. Collect every Clue Bottle and you unlock a safe that gives you a permanent buff, like bonus coins every time you break a thing with coins in it. The primary issue here is that – since the PS3 can render a fair amount of textures, especially when you consider that everything is cell shaded – hubs are stuffed with imagery, to the point where hunting for collectibles is less of a fun diversion and more of a chore. The buffs are completely unnecessary and you can just look up the True Ending on YouTube, so only people who have entirely too much time on their hands will find this a selling point. Good on Sanzaru for putting in the work here, but maybe cleaning up the area would have gone a long way towards making the quest for bottles worthwhile.
Getting around the open world as Sly and his ancestors is actually quite fun. Since that process is fundamentally the same as the platforming missions, playing as the Coopers is usually the best parts of that game. Jumping around has a satisfying flow to it that most platformers completely fail to match. If the game was all Sly all the time, I would speak highly of it. But now we have at least three other non-Coopers to play as. Playing as tech wiz Bentley the turtle or brawl-happy Murray the hippo was a bit more consistent across the previous games, but here these segments are just not prevalent enough. Sly 3 alternated between the characters frequently enough to give players time to familiarize themselves with different play styles. And when a new concept was introduced in that game, it held back and centered the whole level around that idea. Did that always work? No, but here it feels like the variety is overwhelming in addition to being inadequate.
You have three different hacking minigames for some reason, turret sections, quick-time-event chains, a boss fight with a focus on character animation that honestly reminded me of Dark Souls, rhythm game sections, and Sixaxis minigames. That’s right, motion controls in 2013. I thought we all got together and agreed that we didn’t need to shake a controller in between button presses. There is no quicker way to break immersion without bringing up a window asking for more cash. Interestingly enough, one of the hacking minigames is Sixaxis-based. You have to get a ball of energy or whatever to the end of a level within a time limit. And, for some reason, if you turn the controller in a certain way, eventually that somehow becomes equilibrium and the ball stops moving in the intended direction. I have never been closer to snapping my controller. Hell, I probably would have if it actually was my controller and not my brother’s.
This isn’t even mentioning the issues prevalent in the original games that are still proudly on display here. Stealth is often a crapshoot, and most of my deaths were due to poorly explained mechanics or unpredictable traps. And maybe sometimes the game strays a bit too far from the platforming that earned this franchise a place in my heart. And that stuff was totally in Sly 3, yes. We live in a more enlightened time! The PlayStation 3 can do so much, but it’s just not being taken advantage of in the right ways. You could strip the hub world and instead offer much larger mission areas with multiple paths. Or at the very least, trim some of the fat and offer a better experience. This really should have been the best Sly Cooper yet, since time has yielded brilliant new ideas pioneered by other studios that could have been polished for this game. Instead, we get the same old thing with new problems.
I have never been more disappointed in a game. Considering the quality of the previous entries, if you asked me if a theoretical Sly 4 would turn out poorly, I would have laughed in your face until you cried. But now I’m the one with a waterfall pouring down my face. Most of these issues could have made for a wonderful game by yesteryear’s standards. Sanzaru Games’ noble attempt to preserve the legacy of Sly Cooper is much appreciated in theory. I love the series too, guys. But games have evolved. It’s okay to change in service of a better product. While you’re at it, please don’t add to things that didn’t work in the first place. The only way I can recommend Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is if you have a time machine. Go back to 2005, where this game belongs.