Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time
After an eight year hiatus, Sony’s sneaky, anthropomorphic PS2-era mascot is back and pilfering his way onto the PS3 and PS Vita. Sucker Punch Productions, the series’ previous developer, is out (and busy whipping together another inFamous title for PS4) and Sanzaru Games is in (after a bang up job bringing The Sly Collection to the PS3). The handheld version of Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time holds some of the same charm found in previous entries in the series, but notable issues keep Sly and company from having the same impact that they had under Sucker Punch’s direction nearly a decade ago.
Despite the significant gap between releases, Thieves in Time takes place immediately after the events of Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves. Our pointy-eared burglar has turned over a new leaf and is settling into a fresh, crime-free life with inspector Carmelita Fox (no relation to Megan). As you might expect, a few minutes into the game’s opening cutscene, Sly is forced to abandon his attempt at an honest life, don his trademark bandit mask and get back to thieving. A few Saturday morning cartoon-style plot developments later and Sly’s band of merry animal-men find themselves launching back through time to discover why pages from the Thievius Raccoonis are going missing.
Granted, a free-wheeling romp through time is about as hackneyed as plot developments go (sorry Bill and Ted), but it does allow for the existence of some varied and colorful hub worlds (you’ll visit everywhere from feudal Japan to the wild west), which are well-designed and rewarding to explore. In fact, scouring these hub areas for collectibles just might be the main highlight of the game, despite some wonky control issues that keep you from feeling as empowered and acrobatic as other rooftop-leaping game protagonists (Sly could learn a thing or two from Mr. Auditore da Firenze).
The issue holding the hub exploration part of the game back stems from Sly’s limited interactions with his surroundings. There’s no scrambling up walls, no scaling windowsills like ladders. Sly can only attach to the environment where the game allows you to (indicated by a cluster of blue sparkles) and, sadly, that’s not in nearly enough places. Even so, once you dial down your expectations as to how fluidly Sly is able to maneuver through the game world, the allure of sniffing out hidden and hard-to-reach trinkets becomes tough to resist, and it’s easy to find yourself spending a good hour “wasting time” in the hub worlds, just poking around for goodies.
You’ll also feel compelled to stick around in the hub worlds just to avoid incurring any of the game’s frequent and lengthy load times. A simple act like transitioning from hideout to hub world often takes 45 or so seconds, and rushing to your mission entry point (which may only take ten seconds) may prompt another load of nearly a minute. This is a tough blow to gamers who are looking to enjoy Thieves on the go (that is the point of owning a portable game system, isn’t it?) and there’s no install option to alleviate the problem.
Once the game does transition from hub section to mission area, you’ll generally find yourself on a linear track with the path to the level’s objectives spelled out beforehand (usually by Sly’s high tech turtle buddy, Bentley). This makes for fairly stress-free mission segments, but the lack of challenge or potential for those “aha!” moments does sap some of the fun from the experience. Various mini games are judiciously sprinkled throughout, but they are hit (Bentley’s twin stick shmup hacking segments) and miss (any that use the Vita’s tilt functionality) and, again, none are particularly challenging.
Thankfully, the game’s cast of characters pull off that Saturday morning cartoon charm and are quite quirky and likeable. Murray’s super excited animation when you move the cursor over him, Sly’s confident staff twirl, Bentley’s wobbling wheelchair – the combination of all of these subtle details, solid writing and great voice acting gives Thieves a lot of heart. One gets the feeling that if Sony opted to expand the Sly property outside of games, there just might be a market for it, if only due to the appeal of the game’s art style, theme and characters.
In terms of visual presentation, the game looks good on the PS Vita, but a large concession was made regarding the series’ trademark cel shading style – it has been completely removed. Gone are the bold black lines and large cartoon-style swaths of color, replaced by a traditional look that lacks the unique charm of previous series entries (and the PS3 version of this entry). Clearly the concession was made due to hardware limitations inherent to the Vita, but it’s still disappointing that such a big part of the series’ visual appeal was axed completely. That’s not to say the game looks bad; Thieves runs at a consistently smooth framerate (some Vita games suffer in this area) and both environments and characters still look suitably sharp and colorful.
Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time for the PS Vita is a strange beast. On one hand, it’s a fun, colorful, hearty little game that employs throwback platforming and collect-a-thon elements to good effect. On the other hand, it features a jarring mishmash of gameplay styles, lacks challenge and suffers from enthusiasm-sapping load times. In the end, if you enjoyed Sly’s escapades on PS2, you’ll likely feel comfortable with what Sanzaru has done with the series, just don’t expect it to be Sly’s best outing or you’ll likely be disappointed.