A long, long time ago, I can still remember when every other game wasn’t a shooter, and 3D platformers were popular. This generation, not so much. Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time arrives nearly eight years after its PS2 predecessor like a breath of fresh air amid the blood and bullets. Which is funny, because some design elements feel stale, but they are easier to forgive because new entries in the genre are so rare, and the game’s flaws never outweigh its strengths. The bulk of the game is smartly designed and satisfying, not to mention quite pretty.
Sly’s latest adventure picks up after Sly 3, with the gang traveling through time to save a thieves guidebook titled Thievius Raccoonus. The time-traveling tale will take you to Feudal Japan, the Wild West, the Ice Age, Ancient Arabia, Medieval England, and Paris, as you team up with Sly’s ancestors to save pages of the book and stop a mysterious, mischievous collector. If you are new to the series, much of the plot (and some of the charm) will be lost on you. The game does a good job of trying to catch you up on previous events, but if you’re not already invested in the characters, you might find it hard to care. Which is fine, because games in this genre have never relied on deep stories. The story in Thieves in Time is there if you care, and filled with decent humor, but following it isn’t crucial to your enjoyment.
If you’ve never played Sly Cooper, the core gameplay is a smart, slick mix of 3D platforming and light stealth. You sneak around villages using wires, ledges, and rooftops to avoid detection. Landing on certain platforms requires pressing the circle button, which adds a unique layer to a genre that usually automatically guesses when you want to connect with a tightrope or ledge. Whether you’re a fan of stealth or not, rest assured that the stealth nature of the game is both satisfying and forgiving. This is not Splinter Cell, and you won’t be shot dead for failing to stick to the shadows and painstakingly plotting your every move through trial and error. This is fun stealth, and you’re very rarely punished at all. In most missions, if you’re spotted by an enemy, you can simply run far enough away, and he will forget about you. (Or you can just kill him.) Guards have clearly defined vision cones, usually represented by light emanating from lanterns. As long you’re outside of that vision cone and not sprinting, you can freely explore the environment without fear of being detected.
Sneaking is encouraged and built into the very nature of the gameplay, but it never really hinders your fun. You can run around rooftops, jump down into a courtyard, smash some boxes, kill some minor enemies, sneak up behind a guard, pickpocket him, and kill him without alerting a guard mere feet away. And sneaking up behind a guard and pickpocketing him before taking him out is quite satisfying. Musical notes accompany your last few footsteps as you tiptoe up behind guards, increasing the tension and payoff, while in the back of your mind you know they will never feel you pickpocketing them.
Like many 3D platformers, there is ample variety outside of the core gameplay. Thieves in Time mixes it up by constantly introducing new characters and costumes, all of which have different abilities. Members of your gang also have varying mission types. The hippo Murray, for example, is often used for missions that require brute force and beating up a lot of enemies. The wheelchair-bound turtle Bentley often has to hack computers, and half of the hacking missions are brief 2D twin-stick shooter levels.
As the gang travels through time, Sly Cooper finds new costumes and helps distant ancestors. In Feudal Japan, he finds a Samurai costume that allows him to endure fire without taking damage. Ancestors join the gang after being saved, and they each have their own missions and abilities. In the Wild West, you get to play as Tennessee “Kid” Cooper, a cowboy who shoots pistols to target enemies and switches from a distance. Sir Galleth Cooper of Medieval England has a catapult ability that allows him to launch himself and higher and harder than Sly’s jump. All of the costumes and characters’ abilities add a new wrinkle to the gameplay and inspire varied level design without feeling too drastically different from each other.
Unfortunately, instead of adding to an increasing arsenal, these characters and their abilities are mostly limited to self-contained levels built specifically for them. You can’t switch characters at will in the middle of a level, and once you leave the Wild West, you won’t require Tennessee Cooper’s guns but a handful of times, and those moments will come when the game forces you to use him. You can swap costumes on the fly, but they are rarely useful outside of the levels in which you find them. Once you leave Japan, there is no reason to don the cumbersome Samurai costume, because you don’t run into fire again. The result is a game with lots of variety that constantly introduces new elements only to discard them in the next level for something else.
Most games that introduce new mechanics and abilities throughout their adventures fall into the same trap. In Zelda games, you get a hookshot in one dungeon and use it to navigate and fight the boss in that dungeon, and then it is rarely utilized again. It’s not a design flaw so much as a shortcoming, and it holds back a good game like Thieves in Time from being truly great. The constant variety keeps things fresh, but I can’t help imagining a game that continuously incorporates new elements into a grand design that eventually leads to me walking into rooms and wondering which item or ability in my growing toolset will help me proceed to the next room.
And while there is plenty of variety, it doesn’t always ensure platforming bliss. Some missions are bland, tedious, forgettable, or downright annoying, thankfully not all at once. Boredom occasionally creeps in. You will have to run around and find all the things, and of course, there are those missions where you have to tail someone forever without alerting them. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a tail mission, and I still haven’t, even though they are done well here. Frustration rears its ugly head in a couple of the boss fights, especially the second big boss battle in the Wild West, which requires lots of trial and error and switching between costumes with perfect timing. Load times are inexplicably lengthy every time you enter a level. Motion controls also pop up from time to time, so there’s that.
There are real flaws in Thieves in Time, but they are greatly outweighed by the good. The graphics and voice acting alone are enough to carry you through the dull segments. At the end of the day, the fact that we are getting a quality 3D platformer with top-notch production values in 2013 is a gift. And if we’re being honest, even at its worst moments, Thieves in Time features generally better design than many of its peers, some of which are heralded classics from the genre’s heyday.
The game is also a great value. Sony released it at a budget price of $40, and as a cross-buy game. If you buy it for PS3, the Vita version is included as a download. One of the game’s coolest features is the ability to save to the cloud and then continue your game on the go, in bed, or on the toilet. It should be noted that while the Vita version is generally the same game, its controls make it the inferior version. Aiming is not as easy or precise with the system’s miniature analog sticks, and the Vita version throws in even more motion controls. I found an archery segment impossible on the Vita, because you are forced to guide the arrows by tilting the system, and it just didn’t work. When I switched back to the PS3 version, I found you guided the arrows using an analog stick, and I passed the level on the first try.
Whichever system you choose to play it on, Thieves in Time is not quite as long as some 3D platformer classics, but by today’s standards its length is more than adequate. It took me roughly 10 hours to reach the end credits, but I also wasn’t trying to 100 percent the game. The game’s length could easily double for completionists who go after the tons of collectibles hidden in each level.
Developer Sanzaru Games reportedly started working on Thieves in Time before consulting with Sony. When the studio presented its work to Sony, executives were so pleased with the prototype that they greenlit the project. Unfortunately, Sony didn’t properly market the game. Inevitably dismal sales may leave the series’ future in doubt, but at this point I’m just happy the game exists at all and represents the genre so well, and if you’re a fan of 3D platformers, you should be, too.