Developer: Sanzaru Games / Publisher: SCEA / Played On: PS3 / Price: $39.99 / ESRB: Everyone 10+ [Alcohol Reference, Cartoon Violence, Suggestive Themes, Use of Tobacco]
Back in the 2000s, Sony had a monopoly on the mascot platformer. You couldn’t throw a cat without hitting one: Ratchet & Clank, Jak & Daxter, and the plucky raccoon that could, Sly Cooper. It’s been seven years since the last game, almost an eternity in video games, but like a corpse risen from the grave, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time attempts to recapture the magic of its golden age heyday with the same cast of charming characters who platform their way through a variety of open worlds and stages. I myself am a huge fan of the original Sucker Punch trilogy, and a new entry after so long had me extremely excited.
In the intervening years, I forgot the plot of the series almost entirely, so the video primer at the beginning of Thieves in Time is a great refresher for fans, and a serviceable introduction for anyone new to the franchise. Then, Thieves in Time picks up immediately where Sly 3 leaves off, with the Cooper gang living peacefully and plentifully. But when the itch to cause hijinx hits Sly, the crew decides to lift some valuable art in Paris. Unfortunately, it goes wrong, and the team is warped through time to ages past.
The basic structure of the gameplay is exactly as you remember it: you have your choice of the three main characters (the limber and agile Sly, Bentley the wheelchair-bound turtle, and Murray the brawling hippo) who then go into each time period’s open hub world to beat missions and collect hidden items. Along the way you can grab and spend coins to upgrade each character’s abilities, and each era has its own unique Sly Cooper ancestor that can be used in that specific chapter of the game. For example, the first chapter has you in feudal Japan, and Rioichi Cooper, part-time sushi chef/part-time ninja, is your first ally in the quest to escape back to the modern era. The series is known for its variety of locales and environments, and this game is no exception; you’ll also travel to ye olde Englande, the prehistoric, and the old American West, among others.
While the environments are nice, and they provide ample room to jump, fly, and crawl through the terrain, they also all feel very similar. And that’s a problem that affects the entire game. While the team at Sanzaru clearly understands the Sly Cooper formula, they also adhered to it strictly to the letter. Every area has its own thematically appropriate enemies, but for the most part they boil down to the same types through the entire game. You have your heavy, your medium, and your small foes; heavies always patrol with searchlights, mediums can be found wandering around the level both high and low, and small enemies provide rooftop cover. But they’re all incredibly easy to defeat and employ the exact same tactics from era to era. The combat is also exactly as you remember it, which means it’s incredibly unwieldy and extremely simple. The forced combat situations (found mostly in Murray’s missions and in boss fights) are easily the worst parts of the game.
While the game does look nice stylistically, and the art direction is the same Saturday morning cartoon vibrancy that you remember, it’s also very flat. Don’t get me wrong: the game looks fantastic for a Sly Cooper game… in 2005. For a modern day attempt, it’s very simplistic. The heavy asset re-use also doesn’t help, it makes navigating the open world segments very difficult. The map is next to useless, and because every object looks the same, finding collectibles or trying to get back to a point in the level that you wanted to return to is frustrating and difficult. In all, I wish the game was spruced up on the visual front, as this is an example where the simplistic nature of the visuals and lack of detail ends up hurting the gameplay.
That aside, the game has character leaking out of every orifice. The original voice cast for the Cooper gang is back, which I wouldn’t have any other way. It’s been too long since I heard Bentley’s nasally bravado or Murray’s self-absorbed monologues. Between chapters you’ll get the classic Sly Cooper animated cartoon, bridging each gameplay section with narrative and visual gags. Sony should really think about putting this franchise into the comic book arena, because it would be perfect. The real stars of the show, though, are the area enemies, each themselves a time traveler with villainous schemes. They have some of the best writing and gimmicks of any of the game’s cast, especially Toothpick, the cowboy-obsessed armadillo sheriff from Eastern Europe who is the boss of the American West stage. His constant one-liners and hilarious commentary about the state of the level had me smiling and laughing the entire time. You may or may not also notice voice performances by both Steve Blum and Nolan North, both of whom show some surprising range; I would not be shocked if you play through the entire game and can’t figure out which characters they play.
Finally, I need to point out that the animations of the characters are excellent. Take a moment and let each character stand in place for a couple seconds to check out their idle fidgeting and poses. The Cooper family tails flick and flow wildly while they’re sprinting or climbing, and Bentley’s frenzied wheelchair rolling while trundling is particularly joyful.
Really, while the story is also simple, it’s a prototypical Sly Cooper narrative that gives enough of a reason to keep tromping through levels while maintaining a sense of humor. This game does seem to have moved the writing down for a younger audience, though I could just be misremembering the older games in the series as I was actually part of that younger audience when I first played them. In all, it’s not going to set the world on fire, but it will make you at least chuckle silently to yourself every now and again.
I did not get a chance to try the PlayStation Vita cross-save functionality, but assuming it works, this is a good game for on-the-go play, as the missions are short enough that you can knock one out on a quick bus ride here and there. It should also be noted that the PS3 version comes with the Vita version for free, which is a nice bonus given that it’s only ten bucks more.
There have been many strides in game design since 2005, almost none of which you’ll see in the actual gameplay here. One the one hand, it’s very disappointing that Sanzaru didn’t update at least some of those elements. At the very least, the visuals should really have been more substantial, and the inexact edge detection during platforming that oftentimes leads to your unexpected death is a holdover from Sly 3 that really should have been fixed. The small improvements that were made, such as the thoroughly well-designed Bentley hacking minigame (which goes from a top-down Geometry Wars-inspired shooter to Gradius-like ‘shmup) are nice additions that break up the monotonous gameplay.
But really, the unfortunate truth is that the game sticks too close to its predecessor’s guns for its own good. By the time you get to the third chapter, you know how the rest of the game plays out: arrive in the past, rescue Cooper family member, complete missions, and then fight the boss. Bentley and Murray’s missions are still far less enjoyable than Sly’s, thanks to his increased mobility and paraglider. The whole experience feels like an anachronism. Younger gamers might accept some of these problems more readily, and when the game is on, it’s a lot of fun. If you enjoy the simplicity of the gameplay or collecting lots and lots of shiny objects, you’ll get tons of that here, giving you more entertainment after you’ve completed the main story. But time really has changed gaming, as well as my taste in games, and unfortunately, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is stuck in the past.
+ Gameplay you love and remember
- Dated design and visuals
- Sexualization of Carmelita Fox is just creepy
7 / 10