It has been over seven years since Sly and his gang last took center stage. A lot can happen in seven years. The Jak franchise is dead, while Ratchet has been languishing due to its new status as a second tier franchise over at Insomniac. Sly seemed to have been dead for a long time as well, but Sanzaru Games has pushed the reset button and brought him back into the spotlight. Sanzaru is in an interesting position. They really haven’t branched out on their own until now. They’ve mostly dealt with porting other games onto new systems. Sly 4 is their chance to show they have what it takes to be their own developer.
Thieves in Time picks up righter where Sly 3 left off. Sly has taken a sabbatical in order to spend some time with his lady love, Carmelita Fox. Murray is off doing whatever. More importantly, Bentley and Penelope have been hard at work creating a time machine. This quickly becomes vital, as Penelope goes missing and pages of the Thievius Raccoonus have started turning blank. This means that some dastardly villain has started interfering with Sly’s ancestors. The gang gets back together to tackle this job, as well as find Bentley’s lost girlfriend.
While the writing can be suspect at times, this game certainly has all the fell of a Sly Cooper game. Each character retains their trademark personalities, and all of them are even given some time to show a little depth. The story actually gets stronger as it goes, and the new characters get more interesting. Each of the game’s five chapters introduces you to one of Sly’s ancestors, as well as a villain that is keeping them down in order to perform some dastardly deed. You get a ninja from feudal japan, an outlaw from the wild west, a cave raccoon, a medieval knight, and an Arabian thief. A couple of these are duds, but the more interesting ones shine through brilliantly, and serve as interesting foils for the regular cast. However, they do tend to skirt the line of acceptability and stereotypical nonsense. The Japanese ancestor runs a sushi shop, for example. While plausible, one can’t help but feel a little bit uneasy about it.
Humor is a big part of the game, and this is where the story’s worth will be in the eye of the beholder. If the jokes work, you’ll love it. If you don’t laugh, you’ll likely grow bored. Either way, there are certain jokes that will work on just about everyone, such as the frequent Indiana Jones references. Overall, the game works better than it perhaps should, which says a lot about the strength of the characters before this game.
Visually, the game is interesting. It aims to keep the cartoonish aesthetic of the previous titles while adding some modern techniques. At times it can look fantastic, but at other times it can look like an outdated mess. Some animations are top notch, while others look awkward. The game can be running smoothly one second, and then chug along when you use a specific power or ability. Basically, the visuals offer an unbalanced experience. This is clearly far from what the PS3 can accomplish. This can be explained in part by the game’s need to be able to cross-save with the Vita version, but like with PS All Stars, the game doesn’t fully get away with that excuse. At least in this case the game has a budget price tag.
Where the game really shines is in the audio. All of the principal voice actors have returned, and each do a bang up job, despite the fact that there had to be a degree of ring rust on their vocal cords. Sly is his typical snarky self, with just the right amount of confidence. The new characters are done just as well, and some of my favorite bits were done by random guards rather than major characters. The music takes some cues from the previous games, but uses the time travel theme to its fullest, creating unique tracks for each era. The wild west tune could be used in just about any western. The classic sounds are all still present, such as the victory theme when completing a job. It’s a nice soundtrack from top to bottom. The weakest part of the aural experience is the effects, as they rely on classic sounds for the most part. While nice, they can come off as outdated to say the least. I also encountered sections of the game where appropriate sounds weren’t heard, and it was disconcerting. Still, the rest of the package more than makes up for it.
Sanzaru didn’t flip the script with this franchise. They kept the classic controls intact, such that a veteran Sly player could jump right in without any problems. I noticed a couple of missing upgrades from Sly 3, but the rest of the classic moves are there, as well as some new ones.
Sly is an agile beast. He can walk on thin ropes, scale pipes and trees, shimmy along narrow ledges, and other such things. In combat, he’s best when sneaking up from behind, as he can take anyone out with his trusty stealth takedown. In a fair fight, he’s formidable, but enemies are much harder to bring down. However, as fun as Sly is to control, he’s not even close to the only playable character in the game. You’ll also get to play as Bentley, Murray, Carmelita, and all five of Sly’s ancestors. Each has a unique feel to them, or at least has a special move that only they can perform. Bentley rides around in a wheelchair and uses a variety of projectile weapons. Murray is the brute strength of the group, capable of taking foes down quickly and throwing heavy objects. Carmelita has her trusty shock pistol. Three of Sly’s ancestors have unique moves that allow them to access areas that even Sly can’t. The other two have special mechanics ripped straight from other games. Tennessee Cooper, from the wild west, carries a pistol that he fires from third person. He can also slow time to line up shots in pretty much the exact same way that John Marston did in Red Dead Redemption. Bob, the prehistoric ancestor, can scale walls that use the exact same mechanics and tricks as the God of War franchise. I consider these mechanics tributes rather than knock offs, as they fit the characters at least.
A big part of this game’s focus is on the use of different costumes. Sly gets a new costume for each time period, and must use said costumes to progress. The archer costume allows him to use special arrows to create a rope bridge in designated places, the jailbird costume allows him to ride a metal ball around to avoid floor traps, and the Arabian costume gives him the power to slow time. These costumes are certainly interesting, but the level design is suspect. Apart from finding secret areas, you won’t use costumes except in their associated time zone. The samurai armor you get in Japan doesn’t really come up again at all, except when unlocking a hidden door or two. This is a shame, as integrating these costumes into the entire game could have been something special. It’s also a shame how situational most of these are. Using that arrow technique at any time could open up the gameplay by allowing you to create new pathways. I suppose they didn’t do this so that they could keep the basic platforming challenging, but this is still a missed opportunity.
Variety is the spice of life, and Sly 4 will keep you on your toes. You are constantly forced to switch characters, perform special minigames, and change up your tactics. However, this did not dilute the basic gameplay, as it’s still top notch. The platforming is as tight as ever. However, it’s still fun to take a break with a quick side scrolling shooter or motion based puzzle. Oh yeah, this game actually takes advantage of the Sixaxis controller. It may only be for a handful of minigames, but it was a nice surprise nonetheless. The game’s pacing is solid because of the variety, and just as you’re getting a little bored of the traditional stuff, something new comes along to keep things lively.
One area where the game has taken a step back is in the stealth mechanics. While you can move as well as ever, the guards have gotten dumber. Their field of vision has shrunk, their ability to hear you is nonexistent, and they won’t call in for backup. In one level, I was asked not to alert the guards. I could take them out, but I could only use takedowns without failing the level. In one very small room, there were three guards clustered around each other. I took all three of them out, without the use of silent takedowns or any other real technique. In any other Sly game, I would have been heard, seen, or found out in some other way. In another case, a guard spotted me, and despite the fact that there were several of his buddies in close proximity, none of them heard him yapping like a maniac or even noticed our back and forth battle. I vanquished the foe, and continued on without hindrance. Fans of stealth games are going to notice these issues, and get more than than a little annoyed by them. I know it bothered me.
What the gameplay boils down to is this: the game does most everything fine and the game plays well. However, apart from costume changes, this is basically the same setup as the last two games. I can understand that Sanzaru wanted to stay true to the series, but they failed to innovate it in any way. This feels like a game that could have come out on the PS2 in 2006, the year after Sly 3. So while it’s a solid gameplay experience, it’s also a bit of a letdown.
If you’re just going in for the story, don’t expect this game to last more than eight or so hours. If you want to collect everything, either for trophies or amusing extras, the game can last around twenty, which is a pretty good deal. This extra content will involve hunting down clue bottles, Sly masks, and treasures. You can unlock new costumes, or even some playable arcade games in the hideout. It’s not a bad setup at all.
One of my biggest problems with this game was how incredibly easy it was. Checkpoints are very generous, to the point where dying isn’t a problem even in tough boss fights. Speaking of which, the final boss is an absolute joke that ends the gameplay aspect of the game on a sour note. I don’t know if they ran out of time and shoehorned a QTE in to get the game out on time, or if they simply ran out of ideas. I do know that I felt cheated. The game had a few tricky spots, but beyond them it was easiest game in the franchise yet.
We have a few last details to go over. Buying this game gives you a free copy of the Vita version as well, which is nice since you can save between them and take your game on the go. Trophy hunters should note that you only get one set for both versions, so no double trophies. It also features 3D support and was clearly meant to be played that way. There are several moments and on screen prompts that pop out, and feel awkward to play in 2D.
In the end, fans of the Sly series should definitely pick this game up. It does a decent job of bringing the game back into the spotlight while keeping the game’s identity intact. While there are certainly flaws, and a strong sense of deja-vu, it is still a solid exclusive for the PS3.
Short Attention Span Summary
If you’ve missed the Sly franchise in any capacity, this game will satiate your thirst. It picks up right where the last game off in every respect. This both serves the game well and creates some issues. The gameplay is intact, the story is classic Sly stuff, but nothing new has really been added. This game could have easily been made seven years ago and been a great addition to the PS2′s lineup. Thankfully, the game is a budget title, so that particular issue can be forgiven. Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is a fun platformer with plenty of charm and a strong sense of variety. It’s worth a look, and hopefully a sign of the a great future for the franchise.