Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time Review (PS3, PS Vita)

Sly Cooper’s latest adventure is, undeniably, a labor of love. Sanzaru Games clearly understands what makes this franchise special: cartoon antics, tactful innuendos, and a colorful world ripe for stealthy platforming. Indeed, with regards to Sucker Punch’s venerable PlayStation 2 trilogy, Sanzaru’s debut title is a faithful sequel, and almost religiously so. Ultimately, that’s a very good thing – Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time may be more than seven years in the making, but it feels like a natural evolution for the series. Sanzaru has managed to take ownership of a brand that some fans (including myself) couldn’t imagine in any other hands, and while not every change is a home run, Thieves in Time pushes the series forward and effectively introduces our favorite rogue-ish raccoon to a new generation.

Despite having entered the high-def era, Thieves in Time should make Sly Cooper veterans feel right at home. As an open-world platformer, the game advances between episodes – playground worlds where you’re free to roam, rob guards, and hunt collectibles – as the player completes missions. Sly’s brand of stealth action is familiar, but a few distinct features separate his endeavors from the pack. In the end, double-jumps and ground-pounds will only take you so far. Sly’s main mode of traversal is the Circle button, which acts in context to attach our agile hero to the nearest interactive object. Tightropes, flagpoles, tree branches, and the like are all viable means from point A to B. Establishing a rhythm of traversal is half the fun in a game that – in terms of sheer variety – will ultimately throw the kitchen sink your way.

This journey through the unexpected does not begin without a call to the past. Thieves in Time opens with a lengthy cutscene that recalls the ambiguous ending of Sly 3 and catches up newcomers on major characters and motives. The titular raccoon is the youngest and last-remaining descendant in a line of thieves that goes back for thousands of years, and the exploits of the honorable Cooper clan – who rob only the dishonorable – are the stuff of legend. We last saw Sly faking amnesia so that the fires of romance with law enforcement nemesis Carmelita Fox could be kindled. Meanwhile, Sly’s longtime crew of friends pursue their own endeavors. While Murray (the hunky hippo) takes the stock racing and demolition derby circuits by storm, Bentley (the tech-wiz turtle) and girlfriend Penelope begin developing a time machine. Upon completion, tragedy strikes. Penelope disappears, and pages of the Thievius Raccoonus, an ancient tome chronicling the history of Sly’s ancestors, are being wiped blank without explanation. Eager to uncover the answers and correct the conundrums, Bentley completes his work and rounds up Sly and Murray for one more job – find Penelope, and save Cooper history.

Sly’s ancestry is the focus of this time-hopping adventure, which is all the more intriguing for it. Each time period visited is a hub world rife with missions, collectibles, and a playable ancestor whose mechanics and abilities inject astounding variety. Perhaps more importantly, every ancestor is just plain fun. There are no high and low watermarks, only the distilled essence of what makes this franchise special: unpredictable gameplay and surprises, backed by tight polish and controls. Catapult from iron rings. Target six enemies in slow-mo shooting a la Red Dead Redemption. Leap from spire to spire over massive distances. When Sly’s talented forebears enter the equation, there’s always a compelling gameplay twist just around the corner.

Less compelling are the narrative twists that accompany them. While every ancestor Sly and the gang saves (and every boss baddie they put down) ultimately serves to restore the Thievius Raccoonus, the implications through time of their success or failure aren’t emphasized enough. I felt some lack of cinematic urgency until the main villain behind it all finally reared its head – shortly after a late-game curve-ball plot twist that, as a longtime series fan, I just couldn’t get behind. But, things improve dramatically from there. Thieves in Time’s last act is arguably the best in the series, for reasons I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say, the game gets its storytelling act together before all is said and done, and its plot becomes one of the more enjoyable entries in Sly Cooper canon.

Thankfully, Thieves in Time is consistently great at what Sly Cooper games have always done well: stealth platforming in vibrant open worlds. Sly’s momentum has been increased, and jumping height for all characters feels down, but this is by-and-large the same tight experience you remember. Each time period the gang visits serves as a new hub world, and each one is packed with luscious detail and the kind of architecture Sly excels at climbing. Bouncing from street to rooftop, sprinting across tightropes, falling silently behind the gold-lined pockets of a guard; this is quintessential Sly Cooper, and it’s still amazingly fun. Sanzaru ups the ante by giving players more stuff to do than in any prior game. Clue bottles and treasures return from Sly 2; the latter will test your mettle with a timed race back to the gang’s hideout. Meanwhile, all 30 clue bottles in each world are required to open that world’s safe, which contains a unique power-up. Finally, Cooper mask tokens populate the game at large, often requiring a keen eye and powers you won’t have at first sight.

Yes, try as you might, you won’t find everything in a world on your first time through. You’ll need one or more of the special costumes Sly acquires later. Much like the playable ancestors, costumes will keep newcomers and veterans alike supplied with an endlessly diverse array of missions and means to complete them. A boss fight might require you to don samurai armor and reflect oncoming fireballs; a particularly well-hidden Cooper mask in the second world might require costumes you don’t obtain until the third and fourth. I was particularly impressed by the replayability these gameplay elements afford. In this regard, Thieves in Time soars over past entries, which are still diverse in their own right.

While the sum total of these additions is a move in the right direction, a few design choices and oversights keep Thieves in Time from being the leap forward it could be. I can acquiesce with the unexplained reset of all moves and abilities learned in prior entries – it’s a series tradition which, in fact, makes more sense here, given the gang’s time off. However, the upgrades you acquire via ThiefNet fail to differ in any meaningful way from past lineups. It’s a missed opportunity, and the game is never difficult enough to necessitate learning the slightly more involved combos you’ll come to possess. So too do I lament that ancestors are only playable in their specific time periods, although anyone with exposure to time travel fiction will immediately recognize the inherent paradoxical dangers. I’m more disappointed that, in spending time with his ancestors, Sly doesn’t learn at least a few of their techniques for himself. It would seem like a logical reward for completing an episode, and could have contributed to very complex and rewarding endgame platforming.

Because the individual strengths of each ancestor ultimately serve a narrative purpose, I can’t be too picky about what Sly doesn’t learn – especially with such a varied crew watching his back. Bentley’s technical wizardry is more important than ever, but his hacking endeavors are no longer confined to a single mini-game with ramping difficulty. Instead, you’re treated to three wildly different mini-games that interchange when systems must be sabotaged. In a true feat of PlayStation dedication, Sanzaru even taints one hacking game with mandatory Sixaxis control. True to tradition, it handles like you’d expect: just well enough to function without too much frustration. More frustrating are the combat sections of Murray, and not for any sense of difficulty. Rather, this hippo’s brand of brawling is as sloppy, unwieldy, and unsatisfying as it’s ever been. It’s strange that Sanzaru chose to unnecessarily toy with Sly’s movement, which has always been a positive, and leave Murray’s brutish mechanics untouched. Carmelita Fox brings up the rear with third-person shooting and generous snap-to targeting. Like every character, her sections are fun at worst and delightful at best, so it’s a shame she doesn’t get more screen time.

Thankfully, every minute of time during which this game occupies your screen is one of visual splendor. Worlds are absolutely bursting with period detail – from the blossoming flowers of feudal Japan to the storefronts and hay bales of medieval England. This cel-shaded tapestry is woven together with impressive animations and a near-flawless framerate. As a result, Sly’s latest adventure is a cartoon production in the purest sense, perhaps more so than any game before it. To this end, character design is uniformly superb; Thieves in Time’s boss enemies may not be the most compelling in the series, but they are certainly the most visually interesting.

The musical composition of Thieves in Time is less impressive. I’ve never associated the Sly Cooper franchise with particularly memorable soundtracks, but I frequently noticed the absence of compelling music during my time with Sly’s latest. In any production of narrative importance, music should be used to feed a sense of urgency, boost suspense when appropriate, or – at the very least – play some small part in engaging the player. Far too often, boss fights, foot chases, and moments that should be high-octane fall mostly flat, either because I can’t hear the music, or it’s too low-key to care. That’s not to say the game’s soundtrack is universally bad; indeed, many of the game’s retooled jazz compositions are quite good. They’re just not used properly, and an overreliance on the jazzey nature of previous entries harms crucial plot moments more than it helps general exploration. Thankfully, witty dialogue and not-so-subtle innuendo contribute to a fair helping of laugh-out-loud moments throughout the game. Thieves in Time may not be the funniest entry in the series, but it certainly holds its own.

I hope Sanzaru Games is proud of what they’ve accomplished with Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. What could have been a crippled imitation of former platforming glory is a faithful sequel that succeeds in bringing a beloved character to the high-def era. More importantly, Thieves in Time is a great deal of fun, and takes the series to bold (and unexpected) places. This new frontier isn’t always a smooth ride, but you’ll be glad you made the journey.

The PS Vita difference
–Ben Shilabeer-Hall, PSU Staff Writer

Thanks to Cross-Buy, the PS Vita version of Thieves in Time comes bundled with the PS3 version. As such, there aren’t many gameplay differences to speak of. Some control features – such as using the motion sensor to balance or using the front touch screen to swap costumes – are exclusive to PS Vita. At times, these control changes can frustrate, though it’s mostly a matter of adjusting between versions. The PS Vita version, while lacking some texture detail, still looks gorgeous on the OLED screen. The framerate keeps stable even in very dense, action-packed areas, but you’ll notice drops from time-to-time.

The game also supports Cross-Save cloud syncing, which allows you to save and load game data instantly on PS Vita and PS3. This works exactly as advertised, and offers a seamless experience (with shared Trophies!) wherever Wi-Fi or 3G follow you. You can also use your PS Vita to find treasure in the PS3 version using an Augmented Reality feature. We had trouble connecting to AR servers pre-release, though we expect that launch day buyers will have no trouble.

Ultimately, the PS Vita version of Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is a fine accompaniment to the console release. Given that the two are bundled together (for only $40!), there’s no reason not to buy the PS3 version and get both.

Note – PSU recieved the PS3 and Vita review codes from SCEA.



The Final Word

A faithful send-up of cartoon humor and polished platforming, Sly Cooper's long-awaited return keeps things fresh with astounding and compelling variety.