Handing your beloved franchise off to another developer has often produced unimpressive results. It has happened time and time again, and will continue to. So when it was announced that the Sly Cooper franchise – one of my favorites from the PS2 era - would be handed off to the relatively unknown Sanzaru Games, I was a bit worried. Thankfully, countless press events and a few impressive demos quelled any fears, catapulting Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time to the top of my most anticipated list of games of 2013. After eight years of absence, does the Cooper Clan have what it takes to make it in today’s ever-changing market?
For those familiar with the story, the game picks up right where Sly 3 left off. For those who aren’t, shame on you, but the game has an excellent introduction to get you up to speed. The team has taken some time off from their thieving ways, but are forced to reunite when Bentley discovers that the pages of the Thievius Raccoonus are disappearing. Making use of the time machine that he constructed at the end of the original trilogy, the team travels through time to rescue Sly’s ancestors, foil the plans of those responsible, and right the flow of time. That’s about all you need to know for the story. It’s not the deepest, but it further develops a couple of the primary characters and serves up a few nice twists. More importantly, it allows fans to meet many of the fabled members of the Cooper Clan. That direction in and of itself is brilliant! It allows for many great opportunities. Casting such a wide net means the ancestors and villains are very diverse. Time periods vary greatly, spanning from feudal Japan, to the wild west, medieval England, ancient Arabia, and even all the way back to 10,000 BC.
Sly games on the PS2 always had a certain charm to them, much in thanks to the cell shaded graphics and superb implementation of sound. The technical capabilities of the PS3 have only accentuated those qualities. Each setting is gorgeous. Vivid colors are thrown around liberally, especially toward the end of the game. The large environments, similar in layout to the latter games, impress at every turn. It’s easy to see that a lot of love and care was put into each episode, in details both large and small. As they should, each time and place feels unique. Anthropomorphic enemies fit within the period specific framework. Background music and sound effects mesh well. Even small details, like the appearance of coins, change throughout time.
Cinemas have also been overhauled. While they sometimes adopt the still frame layout of game’s past, they stray on far more occasions. Most play out like delightful Saturday morning cartoons. Others opt for a hand drawn approach, often relying on humorous simplicity. I cannot recall a recent game with cinemas that impressed this much. I could simply watch them all day.
Gameplay for the main trio remains familiar, with a slew of advancements to upgrades. For instance, (The) Murray’s hands can be charged with fire or electricity, or later have the ability to confuse enemies. Carmelita, who is playable for the first time, can switch between rapid fire, charging, or a triple shot. But the real progression comes from the varied styles of each ancestor. Each historic member of the Cooper Clan brings a unique skill or two. Even their basic attacks stray from Sly’s repertoire, providing interesting new charge moves and stealth takedowns. One ancestor in particular abandons the melee formula almost completely. Another has an interesting alternative to the paraglider. Costumes unlocked in each episode also allow Sly to gain some interesting abilities, mainly to aid in platforming and the unlocking of doors containing treasures.
Every bit of the game feels like classic Sly. Sadly, with the passing of time, some of the challenges and minigames – especially the sixaxis controlled ones – walk a fine line between homage and antiquity. I’m sure Sanzaru didn’t want to overtweak the formula and ruin everything, but they may have played it a bit too safe. There are moments of brilliance, like a hilarious montage with my new favorite member of the Cooper Clan, who was unmentioned in the lore until now. The majority of Bentley’s hacking minigames – which were always one of my favorite parts – are also enjoyable. The Tron-like tank parts are much improved, while the alter ego, side scrolling SHMUPs are contrastingly chaotic. Shooting galleries, which came up in a few instances, were also fun. But for every couple of these that impressed, there was another that felt stale, mainly due to the game’s overall lack of difficulty.
It’s also worth mentioning that a standalone title called Bentley’s Hackpack was released simultaneously. For a measly $3, it adds over 45 levels of Bentley’s hacking minigames, and 200 challenges. I haven’t got around to playing through them, but they look to be a bit more elaborate and difficult that the ones in game.
From a technical perspective, the game has a few minor issues. Later in the game, I found slight issues with the frame rate, mainly when collecting a lot of coins or evading alerted enemies. Loading times were also a bit long, but a few extra seconds is a drop in the bucket compared to eight years of waiting. While these were minor annoyances, they really didn’t impact my overall enjoyment.
Despite these few lackluster qualities, the game is pure fan service. I don’t want those minor complaints to deter you. It’s easy to see that the guys at Sanzaru love the franchise. It feels just as I would have expected a Sucker Punch sequel to feel. Clever title screens introduce each episode, making me wish all games implemented that idea. There are plenty of collectibles from all the previous entries, like the earlier used bottles and unlockable safes, as well as treasures and Sly icons (I call them slycons). References to past games, other franchises, and a few other pop culture pieces are sure to produce a smile. But most importantly, the rich lore of the Cooper Clan has been done justice. Finally developing those fabled ancestors was a brilliant choice. The Thievius Raccoonus has such a rich history of unique ancestors. Even more bold was Sanzaru’s decision to disregard that history and introduce a completely new ancestor. The entire third episode was sheer joy because of it. Quality characters, and the villains who abducted them, kept me wanting to see more. Hopefully we’ve started a new trilogy, because we’ve only just scratched the surface.
If there is one thing that is largely disappointing, it’s that Sony only had the confidence to price the game at $39.99. I would have been just as satisfied paying $59.99. I know that’s a dumb thing to complain about, but I’m still a huge fan of whimsical 3D platformers. It pains me to see them struggle, or be thrown to the wayside by today’s gamer. Eight years ago, they were plentiful. Now, they are few and far between. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the focus changed, but I miss them dearly. Throwing me a bone or two a year just isn’t cutting it.
Thieves in Time clearly demonstrates that these games still have their place, even if it is a bit of a niche. Fans of the series will fall right back in love. And hopefully some new fans can hop aboard my ‘I-still-love-cartoony-platformers’ train to generate a little more noise. Thieves in Time may not be the hugest step forward for gaming, but it transports you back in time to a different period in gaming, where games were full of color, humor, and creativity. I love dismembering a Necromorph just as much as the next guy, but there’s nothing that beats the unbridled joy I experience from such whimsy.
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- Charm and humor are unchanged.
- The power of the PS3 allows for some breathtaking environments.
- Music and sound effects are still phenomenal.
- Ancestors are interesting and add progression to the gameplay.
- A few of the challenges and minigames feel outdated.
- Most of the game is a bit easy.
- Carmelita’s voice seems a bit off. ;)
- That ugly cross buy icon ruins a lovely piece of cover art.