Until just a few years ago, back when the Sly Trilogy was released, I had never heard about Sly Cooper before. I grew up a Nintendo player and my cousins owned a Playstation 2 when that was hip, but even then it was always about Ratchet & Clank, God of War, Jak & Daxter, and sometimes the ol’ Spyro. The point is: this trilogy went under the radar for me and that is preposterous, as Sly’s games are much more remarkable than many other 3D platformer series.
What is Sly Cooper?
This series follows a team of thieves led by Sly Cooper, the youngest member of the ancient Cooper Clan that specialize in stealing from other thieves. All the knowledge of this family has been stored in a book, the Thievius Raccoonus, but at a young age Sly witnessed the murder of his parents and the book was stolen, to be divided among the four culprits. After being shipped off to an orphanage, the young Sly met Bentley and Murray, a tech-savvy turtle and a brawny hippo respectively, who would become his lifelong friends and partners in crime.
The first Sly game was released in 2002 for the Playstation 2 and played very similarly to Crash Bandicoot, providing players a series of HUB-worlds from which they picked between a series of linear platforming stages. Players could take few hits, had limited combat potential, and making sure to collect every goody in the stage was definitely recommended. Oh yeah, both games have a cast consisting of anthropomorphic animal people, that is also a similarity.
Two games followed after that further expanded the theme of being a master thief by placing missions in sprawling city stages and introducing stealth mechanics. The last game in the trilogy was released in 2005, but years later Sony had Sanzaru Games polish the series up to HD quality for a Playstation 3 and Vita release, which was followed by an all-new fourth entry.
What made the games so strong, in my eyes, came from two trends across the games:
- A willingness to evolve and challenge their concept. Provide risky new mechanics with each entry and radically redesign existing elements because “functional” is not enough.
- Surprisingly strong writing for a series of comedy platformers whose primary demographic was young children.
I played all four games back-to-back, yet due to them being so different it felt refreshing each time I started the next. Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus is a humble platforming game with a simple setup and mechanics that are more obviously inspired by its peers. Sly 2: Band of Thieves, then, might as well be a whole different series, as it’s an open-world stealth-action game. It’s by that point that it was clear the series was growing up to become its own thing, but despite this open-world stealth adventure becoming the groundwork for future entries, those still added a lot to the formula.
Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves did away with collectibles and instead opted to go for variety, making it my favorite of the series. Sure, it still had stealth and platforming, but it also had completely functional sea battles designed for the one stage that had pirates in it, or indeed the huge dog-fighting segments, conversation minigames, and many more playable characters.
The reason that Sanzaru Games’ addition to the series, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, is much less fun is because it does away with those, choosing to wallow in old ideas and thus also bathing in the same problems that plagued the entries in the series it apes. It had potential to bring in new content with its costumes and greater roster of characters, but these mechanics feel underdeveloped, like they were meant to introduce it to players now and expand upon these later. Sucker Punch never held back like that, it always felt like the Sly games under their command were as good as they could get at the time, like every idea that was put into them was polished as well as the studio could manage. This, in turn, made it even more remarkable when the next game rolled around and felt so fresh again.
The writing is equally excellent because it dares to challenge what kind of story is fit for children in ways other than grimdark nonsense or adult humor that is likely to go over the head of the target audience. Whereas many of Sly’s contemporaries tried to be cool and “mature” by featuring edgy stories, sometimes even in games where prior entries were lighthearted and fun, Sly achieves so much more by just not flaunting it very much.
Examples of things I like are the romances that develop across the games, considering children, especially boys, are always hilariously disgusted by the other gender. Sly is a suave and flirtatious guy in the first two games before he fully sets his sights on the female police agent Carmelita Fox later down the line. His inner James Bond shines through in scenes where he does ballroom dancing with the girls attending a party before making off with every valuable in the vicinity.
The many characters Sly meets also feel like more than just stereotypical villains. General Tsao is a respected warrior obsessed with his lineage and family honor, which reflects strongly on Sly who is also from a proud family. The Panda King too makes for an amazing character, starting of as a coercive villain in the first game who later on struggles to return to the straight & narrow, and has to suffer the indignity of cooperating with his old nemesis (Sly) to save somebody he deeply cares about. Another reason for why Thieves in Time suffered in quality was because it dropped this aspect entirely, opting instead to rely on more simplistic villains that weren’t tragic or deep, nor did they reflect in any way on Sly’s character, with the exception of the final boss of that game that was basically a copy of Tsao.
Ever since the Sly Cooper games found their stride with Sly 2 there have been recurring problems with the games. The open world formula has seen major restructuring across games, especially in the field of navigation. It didn’t escape my notice, for example, that Sanzaru Games had put countless bounce pads in its levels, to allow the less-mobile Bentley and Murray to get across the levels in a timely fashion, an issue that was very prevalent in Band of Thieves.
For a game I labelled “stealth-action” just a few moments ago, it also has to be said that neither the stealth or action have ever worked particularly well. Sly 2 got pretty close with having good stealth when in controlled environments, but due to the sprawling nature of the overworlds it was pretty hard to care about stealth when moving between missions. Simply by staying on the roofs you could avoid a lot of hostility and whenever you did run into foes you could just lure them atop a building and push them off. Sly 2 did sort of solve this by having huge monstrous creatures and narrow streets, but it only got easier as time went on, to the point that in Thieves in Time I could sprint from one end of the level to another without even meeting any guards.
Combat likewise earned more prevalence in Honor Among Thieves, but despite the huge roster of abilities you can buy, it’s perfectly easy to just mash at foes with your basic attack. I only ever invested in passive upgrades and it’s a bit cheap that a lot of the good upgrades return each game, demanding you buy them all over again.
To be fair, I feel this is mostly fine. As I said before, the formula worked best in Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves where there were so many different types of missions that these issues become hardly noticeable. Stealth during actual missions works perfectly fine and combat is fun in short bursts, so the games could continue to work with that, but it needs to balance this with the necessary variety.
The ending of Thieves in Time teases a sequel and there is a movie project in the works, much like the recent film adaptation of Ratchet & Clank, but personally I don’t think this is going to happen. Going by VGChartz both the trilogy release and Thieves in Time sold worse than any of the preceding games, but even if Sony is willing to take their chances for the sake of having another mainstay series, I don’t want to see Sanzaru Games behind the wheel again.
With the buggy, ugly mess that is the trilogy boxset, as well as the many shortcomings of the fourth game, I feel it has been made painfully obvious they aren’t giving these games the attention they deserve, nor do I feel like the time travel idea they seem set on warrants another go. If that movie goes somewhere, then I might see a continuation happening.