Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time

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Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time
Playstation 3 (reviewed) and Vita
Developed by Sanzaru Games
Released in 2013

After the release of Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves in 2005 Sucker Punch Productions moved on to developing the Infamous series for the Playstation 3. With this it seemed like the Sly franchise was officially over until it was announced that Sanzaru Games was creating an HD remaster of the trilogy and a brand new sequel: Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. Sadly, the Sly Trilogy ended up being a shoddy mess and with Thieves in Time Sanzaru Games proves it had little grasp on what made the series fun.

Meeting one’s ancestors

Sly Cooper is the latest in a long lineage of master thieves known as the Cooper Clan, who in the past three games has performed many heists and defeated world-threatening villains along with his friends Bentley and Murray. However, at the conclusion of Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves, we saw Sly put away his trusty cane and adopt a more peaceful lifestyle while his lifelong friends went their own ways as well. When one day Bentley, the scientist of the group, notices that the prized Thievius Raccoonus, a detailed history of all the Cooper Clan’s achievements, is slowly fading away, he brings the group together once again.

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In-between games Bentley has developed a time machine, but discovered he was not the only one. Somebody else has access to it as well and is using time travel to wipe the Cooper Clan out by undoing the achievements of Sly’s legendary ancestors. Meanwhile Bentley’s girlfriend has mysteriously disappeared and Sly is once again targeted by Interpol’s best agent (and his former girlfriend) Carmelita Fox. Seeking to unravel all these mysteries (and fix Sly’s relationship) the team jumps into the time machine and heads back into the past.

While this presents an exciting new idea to the series, it has to be said that the storytelling in Thieves in Time is the worst the series has seen so far. The characters we meet that aren’t already established are one-note and generic, with villains all doing evil for the sake of evil, and Sly’s ancestors being stereotypes of their respective setting. There is nobody as deeply interesting as the Panda King or indeed Neyla and General Tsao in this story, instead you get a rapping bear that wants money or a violent mercenary tiger that wants money… or the armadillo guy that… wants money…

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Thieves in Time is also terrible with pay-offs, frequently having a slew of uninteresting missions suddenly lead to a big heist. In the Japan stage I was just going along doing some unexciting recon and collecting missions when suddenly Bentley said the guards were all out and it was ready to storm the villain’s fortress. I was expecting to at least knock the guards out myself or put the stuff I collected to good use, but no, that all happened off-screen and it was time to beat up the bad guy. Previous games always made an effort to make it feel like you were sabotaging the villains’ operations, even having the levels change as you wreak havoc, but now that is all gone.

Similarly, the ending pretty much just comes and goes, it’s a pretty bland duel against the series’ least interesting main villain so far, and it concludes basically the same way as Sly 3. In short: a lot of potential has gone to waste here.

Story score: 3/10

Regression regression regression

The gameplay really shows that Sanzaru games was overreaching with Sly 4, as it innovates only in meaningless ways while shedding many of the features that made previous games fun. In terms of style it mostly borrows from Sly 2, so we once again have huge, sprawling stages with many collectibles. With that, the same problems Sly 2 had come bubbling up once more; the collectibles are an everything-or-nothing scenario, you either spend hours tracking down every single bottle or you might as well collect none of them. Guard patrols are also too sparse to handle all the territory and in the rare case that you do come face-to-face with one, there are always half-a-dozen escape routes you can immediately improvise.

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There are also new problems, of course. Missions are plain boring to do and there are a lot less characters to do them with. While it sounds cool to team up with Sly’s ancestors, they play largely the same as the other characters except with one extra ability to them. You can also no longer pick your missions, you only have one at a time and most belong to Sly himself. Just like in Sly 2, these suffer from feeling very repetitive, especially Bentley’s hacking segments that all play the same and sometimes happen multiple times per stage. Along with the missions, levels are also the most boring they have ever been, lacking any sort of memorable structure or gimmicks, with the exception of the excellent medieval stage. While it all looks super fancy in HD, it simply needed more creativity.

Controls are also not very reliable, as I frequently found Sly and his companions to ignore commands. That’s not even a “I totally pressed that button!” rage reaction, I have literally been in situations where I could repeatedly jump and press circle to grab a rope to climb on, only to have Sly bounce off the rope for no reason. I have also gotten stuck between pieces of terrain or had Sly veer off in odd directions to land on a completely different platform than I intended. Even so the platforming is remarkably lacking in challenge and not very engaging at all, you just follow a linear route, deal with the same obstacles over and over again, and failing is only punished by being set back a few seconds at worst.

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After completing a number of missions in each stage you then get to a boss-battle, which all follow a similar pattern. You wait for them to complete their overlong combat phase until they get to the one ability that leaves them vulnerable. You counter that, get to punch them for a bit, then repeat. While some of these can be tough, it’s just boring to wait for so long, and like with the missions the actual good fights are reserved solely for Sly, with Murray only getting one super-easy battle that is just baby’s first Dance Dance Revolution. The final boss, besides being a dull character, also plays out as a long sequence of quick-time events, making for a particularly disappointing finale.

The only new feature that Thieves in Time brings to the table are the costumes for Sly, of which you get one per stage. These bestow some new abilities on Sly, like a tiger costume that gives him a long-distance pounce or a samurai suit that lets him walk in view of guards in the Japan stage and has a shield. These are sometimes interesting, but often go entirely forgotten, to the point I sometimes forgot that they were even there and had to figure out what button to use again. There is also little reason to revisit any of the costumes past their designated stage, so overall Thieves in Time only features downgrades and what little new it does offer is of questionable use.

Gameplay score: 3/10

Finally a 16:9 resolution

I feel it’s a tad unfair of Sanzaru Games to put in so much work to make Thieves in Time look good when it put in so little effort with the Sly Trilogy. Still, it does leave us with what is easily the nicest-looking game in the series thanks to its upgraded resolution and beautiful, bright colors. In an age where more and more games are trying to be gritty and serious, Sly Cooper is still content with being a lighthearted and vibrant adventure filled with fantastical themes and silly characters.

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Still, even here there are some serious problems. While the voice-acting itself is strong, it’s often drowned out by the music of the stage, ambient noises, or just isn’t clear enough. Subtitles would certainly help here, but even when you turn those on it only works in a select few cutscenes. Sound design is further worsened by the annoying nature of the bad guys of each story, which have repetitive dialogue that triggers way too often, a trait they share with Sly’s ancestors and their small library of jokes that are repeated constantly. The new design of the characters also took some getting used to, with Sly looking way too old in some scenes due to the amount of complexities in his face. 

I also enjoy the new themes for the stages, which is definitely a benefit of the time travel story. Each level is thick in atmosphere and style, with locales like Japan and the Wild West standing out as some of the prettiest in the series. Despite the stages looking absolutely stunning, the game struggled to keep them on-screen. Especially in the last world before the final level I was having frequent drops in framerate. Still, overall this has been an improvement in terms of presentation.

Presentation score: 6/10

It’s back!

Sly 3 did away with the collectibles that stayed with the series until then, opting instead to put all that extra effort into more playable characters and greater mission variety. Well, the playable characters aren’t that diverse this time around and the mission are boring, but at least that means we also got the collectibles back. Once again you can explore stages for bottles that unlock vaults, which is admittedly a lot of work, but provides some nice rewards.

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The treasures are back too. These optional, gaudy trinkets can be found across the various levels. Find one and you have to rush back to base within a brief time-limit; manage that and you get a huge cash bonus that can be spend on new abilities. A new addition comes in the form of masks, which Sly would previously leave all over the place, but are now hidden in obscure locations during missions. Collecting these isn’t exactly exciting, but it unlocks some neat extras for those who care.

Personally, after playing all the games back-to-back, I have grown somewhat tired of these collectibles and opted to skip them. Regrettably the challenges from Sly 3 are absent, yet I feel plenty has been added in to fill that spot.

Extras score: 6/10

Verdict

What can really be said. I had a great ride with the Sly series so far and, while Band of Thieves was a bit rough, there was always something to appreciate. Thieves in Time has an interesting concept and that’s about where it ends. The mission aren’t exciting, stealth and platforming are meaningless due to the lack of any sort of challenge, and the characters are far below par for this series. Aside from introducing more collectibles and fancy graphics, this is a disappointing entry for such a great platforming franchise to end on.

45/100

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