It seems rare that a video game series goes away for seven years to return. I can think of a few series that have done it. And some to great success (Metroid’s return with both Fusion and Prime comes to mind), but I honestly can’t think of one I was so invested in doing so. That is until Sly and the gang returned in the recent Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. Despite the time away and the move to another developer, Sly has returned better than ever.
Thieves in Time picks up some time after Sly 3 has ended. Sly is faking amnesia to be with Carmelita, but has gotten the itch to return to his thieving ways. Meanwhile Bentley is working on his time machine when the pages of the Thievius Racconus begin to disappear. This gives Sly the perfect reason to get back in the game and it leads to a fun time-traveling adventure. The series humor is intact as are the lovable cast of characters expanded by some great new villains and more prominent appearances by some of Sly’s ancestors. There was one development in the story I wasn’t a big fan of and the ending left a little to be desired, but neither is enough to dampen this fun tale.
Meanwhile the gameplay manages to combine the best of the PS2 trilogy while adding in a few unique twists of its own. The game is structured like 2 and 3 with each episode taking place in a hubworld. These hubworlds are much bigger, more detailed and full of more things to collect and explore for than in its predecessors. But what really sets it apart from 2 and 3 are the missions that take place outside the main hubs. A good amount of the missions are in levels outside of the open worlds and focus on linear platforming resulting in levels more akin to the original Sly. I don’t think the platforming is necessarily as challenging as the first game’s nor are the levels as tightly designed, but between these linear levels and some of the platforming challenges involved in getting certain collectibles in the hubs, Thieves in Time has the best platforming in the series since the first Sly game.
I’ve been quite critical of Sly 3 going overboard with its number of playable characters and Thieves in Time has about as many, but it handles them so much better. For one, the ancestors play a lot like Sly. One of the issues with 3 was it got so far away from playing as Sly which stands as the best part of the series. But with the ancestors you get characters that have similar abilities to Sly with a twist of their own. It helps add variety to playing as a Cooper, but without getting too far from the core gameplay of the series. Murray, Bentley and Carmelita all make a return as well, but are used sparingly so they just feel like a nice change of pace as opposed to making you ask, “When do I get to use Sly again?” Minigames also make a return. You’ll have some various hacking minigames including one pretty fun one that feels like an old-school scrolling shooter. Nothing here will blow you away, but they are infrequent and generally don’t overstay their welcome.
The core gameplay is as you’d remember. Sly and his ancestors can climb all around hopping on tiny points and running along wires with a press of the circle button. Bentley zooms around in his wheelchair taking out enemies with his bombs and darts. Murray is a bit more upfront with his brawling style and still my least favorite of the characters to use. And Carmelita shoots up enemies with her shock pistol. I was happy to see her a bit more fleshed out this time around with her own buyable powerups. I do wish her superjump would have unlocked earlier and actually put to use in some missions, but overall she is more fun to use in this game than 3 (where I admit she was one of the new playable characters I liked). Sly also has some new costumes that don’t just act as disguises, but grant him new abilities. My favorite was the Robin Hood style one that allowed you to shoot arrows at targets to create rope bridges to cross. These are also used to gate off areas in the hubworlds and are a generally nice addition even if some are a bit more fun to use then others.
Not everything turned out the way I wanted though. The boss fights are generally quite good, but the last is a big letdown. Someone needs to put a moratorium on QTE boss fights as they’ve been plaguing some of my recent favorite games. It’s disappointing too because the series has always done a good job integrating rhythm minigames throughout the series whether it was the boss fight with Ms. Ruby in the first game, Sly and Carmelita’s dance in the second or one particularly hilarious one involving Carmelita in this game. So to see them go for a more traditional QTE for the finish of this one is rather lame. I also wish there were more spotlights, laser grids and other hazards to make the platforming a bit tougher. It is still a bit too easy with the bigger lifeline now. The graphics are pretty solid and there is definitely a big jump up from the PS2 games. It is not top of the line stuff though and there was definitely some slowdown in both Episodes 3 and 5. The load times are also pretty terrible for a modern game. And finally I kind of missed the heist missions that were such a fun part of 2 and 3. There was one really good one, but they definitely could have done a better job with these (and the end of Episode 4 just screams for an amazing heist mission).
A few more things worth noting:
- I think the time travel was a great idea too as it let them get really creative with the level designs. The ancestors’ various cane designs were cool to see and use as well. And despite my expert knowledge of the Thievius Raccoonus after years of playing the series, they managed to surprise me with one of the time period/ancestor pairings and the game is better for it.
- The fourth area, Medieval England, is my favorite. It includes my favorite costume. I think the ancestor is the best. I love the way he wants to rush into things and his accent is great. His move is kind of just a riff on one of Sly’s but his levels are the best designed of the ancestors, so that isn’t much of an issue. I’m a fan of Medieval stuff in general too, so the time period and hubworld were a lot of fun. And the music is my favorite of any in a Sly game. I will admit the ending of this episode leaves a bit to be desired, but overall my favorite area of the game.
- They have done a lot more with the hideouts this time around. Not some huge addition, but cool nonetheless.
- I only played a bit of the Vita version and it is totally fine, but I will admit the graphics really fall flat without the cel-shading and with noticeably worse load times, I just went back to the PS3 version fairly quickly.
- I hope this game does well for Sanzaru. I’d love to see them take another stab at this series. I’d even be okay with them trying their hand at my beloved Jak series if they had a passion for it like they clearly did for this series.
With Sly Cooper: Theives in Time, Sanzaru Games has managed to top original developer Sucker Punch’s work in one try which is no easy task. There are things that the other games do better. The original still has the best platforming. 2 and 3 have much cooler heist missions. And Thieves in Time has missteps of its own. But the whole package is still my favorite Sly yet by a good margin and one of my favorite games this gen. When you throw in the $40 price tag (maybe lower now) that gets you the PS3 game plus the Vita version for free, I simply can’t recommend this game enough.