Deja vu all over again, eh?
Sly Cooper is an interesting series, to say the least. I cannot say whether or not it was the very first platformer to meld platforming and stealth mechanics together, but I'd be a damn liar if I said it didn't set the bar at its highest. The cast and writing were clever, the cel-shaded environments were enormously detailed, and the controls flowed seamlessly with the action in the game, not to mention the bold risk the developers took in the sequels with expanding the levels into wide-open, spacious hubs, which paid off big time. Unfortunately, due to the ever-rising popularity of Sucker Punch's other sleeper hit, InFAMOUS, Sly and his gang were abandoned after the PlayStation 2 era.
Being a huge fan of the games myself (they were originally on my list of Top 5 Favorite Franchises of all time, so that should tell you something), I sat with anticipation, eager to see if Sucker Punch would continue the Cooper Gang's zany adventures, but hadn't heard a word for years. Then E3 2011 came around, and I got my first glimpse of the almighty fourth iteration of Sly Cooper. I care less about the announcement of the Vita, the dozens of sequels, and even The Last of Us; Sly Cooper was all that was on my mind for the next couple of years.
Then I heard Sucker Punch wasn't behind the wheel anymore. And that the game would place a heavier emphasis on using costume abilities. At the time, I wasn't worried about Sly being placed into the hands of Sanzaru, the new developer, but a few months later I played Halo 4, which was developed by 343 Studios, a branch formed by Microsoft after Bungie dropped the Halo license. Everyone else praised Halo 4 to high heaven... but dammit, I tried the game myself, and it left an awful taste in my mouth. I so, SO desperately wanted to enjoy Halo 4, but there were just a bunch of design mishaps that really bogged down the experience for me. The writing wasn't nearly as stellar or clever, the menus were bulky and unwieldy, and the expansive firefights were toned down to cramped, symmetrical rooms and areas. Even my will to play the game's multiplayer left me after a little while, and Spartan Ops, as ingenious and pristine as it was, wasn't enough to save the lacking single-player and multiplayer experiences.
This really got me worried about Sly 4's success, because 343 Studios had dedicated a good amount of time and effort into Halo 4 and it ended up being mediocre in my eyes. I feared that Sanzaru would repeat history (no pun intended) and follow suit with Sly 4, but at long last, the game is here. Has Sly Cooper been knocked down to average status, or will it defy my expectations? Well, it's time to get out our encyclopedias and see if Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time proudly marches into gaming history.
There are things that I love about Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, and things that I am rather perturbed about. To at least keep some semblance of order within this review, I'm going to revert to the ol' "Good/Bad" system that I chose when making my first ever review on this site. Let's start with the things this game did right.
Good: Oh, LORD, it feels so good to see Sly Cooper again. This time, however, you'll notice there's something a little... different about his appearance.
Sly's clothes and gear have been enhanced in terms of polygon count, the lighting has been improved drastically, and his facial and body textures have been replaced with a more fur-like skin. I gotta say, I really like this new look for Sly. It makes it easier to tell his species, and allows for more detailed emotional output from his animations. Bentley, Murray, Carmelita Fox, and the rest of the assorted cast put on a great fresh coat as well.
Which brings me to another point I'd like to bring up: The animations in Thieves in Time are outstanding. Compared to the jittery, odd nonsense we saw in the first Sly Cooper installments, the characters slip around fluidly and look more lively than ever. It really builds upon the cutscenes and the gameplay more than the first three.
It's not just the character models that look gorgeous, either. The world hubs are large and act as very effective eye candy. Compared to the dirty coat of paint we're used to seeing, it's very refreshing to look at the environments in this game, which are bursting with color and littered with atmospheric structures that really set the mood for each time period you visit. In short, this game really transitioned well in the graphics department. I was quite pleasantly surprised.
The control scheme is largely the same as it was in past installments, with some minor tweaks to keep the experience fresh. Sly sneaks around by default, and he can whack at stuff with his cane, balance on roped and pointy protrusions, climb up pipes and assassinate enemy guards with a couple of button presses. His arsenal now includes a set of abilities that can be utilized by donning certain costumes, which range from deflecting fireballs with heavy samurai armor to creating tightropes to walk across by shooting arrows at distant targets with an archer's tunic. These new costume mechanics are solely restricted to Sly, and some of them are rather clever, while a good portion of these costumes take from some of Sly's past moves, such as his Feral Pounce, and tweak them ever so slightly. I wouldn't consider this a game-changing aspect, but it's a nice touch to keep things from getting sterile.
Another interesting concept is the ability to play as some of Sly's ancestors. Ignoring the fact that time paradoxes are practically nonexistent in the Sly Cooper universe, the Cooper Gang usually travels to a certain time period and reunites with a member of Sly's family line, who has, most of the time, been captured. Once freed, they can usually be controlled, and while most of them are functionally identical to Sly Cooper, there are a couple of subtle differences in terms of movesets. For example, Sir Galleth Cooper, a chivalrous knight from the Medieval Ages, has the ability to latch onto hooks, charge up his sword and bust through obstacles above him, something that Sly is incapable of. I am a little disappointed that the only extra characters that join the Cooper Gang this time around are justified Sly Cooper clones, rather than the diverse set of characters introduced to the gang in Sly 3, but I am pleased that Sanzaru allowed you to explore the entire level with them instead of limiting them to specific missions.
In terms of extras, there is a sizable amount of extra goodies to snatch up this time around. The clue bottles, which were mysteriously absent from Sly 3, make their triumphant return in Thieves in Time, and I was surprised to find that the hunt for these bottles required more dexterity than the first three games. This is both a good and bad thing; sometimes the clues will be tucked away behind breakable objects or behind buildings on the edges of the map, which can make the search rather tiresome and irritating, and they aren't usually bundled in groups of 2 or 3 anymore. A vast amount of timepiece treasures are also scattered around the level, which test your speed and pathfinding reflexes as you try to carry them back to the hideout in a set amount of time without being damaged. I had fun searching for these as well, although some of them are locked behind 'costume doors,' which, of course, require you to utilize costume abilities to open. Some of those get rather old quick, and they are usually stashed away on the edges of the map, so finding them can be a chore as well. Lastly, throughout the hubs and missions you'll find Cooper masks scattered here and there. Collecting enough of these unlocks an assortment of extras, such as skins for each of the characters and other fun goodies. These require more searching, however, as plenty of them are hidden within certain missions. Thankfully, the game does allow you to repeat jobs, so you can search for the remaining masks you might have glossed over the first time.
Not everything in Sly 4 is a bundle of roses, however. There were plenty of elements that should have been banished from this timeline. Thankfully, most of these complaints are just me nitpicking, but they did bug me nonetheless, and they might bug you, too.
I think the voice actors and the dialogue are rather weak compared to the first 3. Where Sly Cooper himself has always been a laid-back, unctuous, soft-spoken antihero, in Thieves in Time his VO is ecstatic and boisterous, something that does not fit his character in the slightest. I probably could have tolerated the others as well, but they JUST. WON'T. STOP. TALKING outside of cutscenes. They incessantly remind themselves of the most painstakingly obvious mission objectives, and don't adhere to the fourth wall at all by outright stating the controls and assessing the situation at every moment they can. It gets to the point where it transforms the game into a walking orientation exercise, which is something that I'm dead SICK of seeing in gaming media as of late.
Outside of the overworld collectibles, this game is cake. I almost never had any trouble with sneaking past enemies, even when running most of the time, and most of the guards I confronted hardly dealt enough damage to be considered a threat, even to the point where I could practically take smaller guards head-on as Bentley or Sly without a scratch, something that Sly 2 and 3 actively tried to avoid. Calling it "Baby's First Metal Gear Solid" would be a rather gross understatement.
But the worst parts about Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time come from the lengthy load times. Every time you load a game, enter the hideout, or transition into another section of the level, you have to wait a good 20 seconds or so before the game completely loads the area. It bothers me the most because the load times on the PS2 games were practically obsolete, and that was a whole generation ago! I understand a lot of games these days still have to load quite a bit, but usually that's a one-and-done type deal. In Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, this happens with just about every level transition, even if you're just going back to the hideout! This makes it really frustrating to go back if I want to select a different character to explore the level with.
Now for a section I like to call MBF's First-World Nitpicks. These are rather trivial problems with the game that I personally found rather annoying, but your mileage may vary. Anyways...
- Bentley, Murray, and Carmelita, much like the first 2 sequels, aren't of much use for gathering up collectibles and secrets outside of missions. It's usually Sly and his ancestors that get to round up everything due to their enhanced mobility techniques. I'm not asking for much, but maybe a cracked wall that only Bentley's bombs can blast through would do every now and then, or something of the sort.
- Sly's ancestors don't carry over upgrades acquired for Sly via the ThiefNet shopping system. This makes it bothersome when I realize I can't paraglide over the lake as Sir Galleth Cooper the Knight to get that extra clue bottle.
- There's a Face Heel Turn just past the halfway point of the game that I'm still reeling from. For spoiler purposes, I won't mention who, but I still can't get over how random it is.
- Those costume doors I mentioned earlier? Yeah, I don't like them. They basically exist just to flaunt the game's costume mechanics and they feel completely out-of-place with the rest of the level.
- Only certain treasures obtained throughout the game actually affect Sly's abilities, and those are the ones obtained from opening the safe after collecting every clue. Collecting every treasure also unlocks a new arcade game, but those are mostly just repeats of the subpar hacking minigames in the main story.
- Most of the missions take place inside buildings or other structures that aren't connected to the hub world, so the giant landscape only really serves as a gateway to mission objectives if you're not stopping to pick up all of the secrets.
Summary: Well, it's Sly Cooper. There's not much else I can say. The minor hindrances that came from the load times and the less-than-stellar dialogue didn't entirely ruin the experience for me, when I look back on it. The game had superb visuals and tight controls, and all-in-all it was a great big swig of nostalgia. If you've had experience with the past few Sly games, it's worth your while to check this one out, too. If you haven't been a longtime series fan, I'd start with the first three. Now for my obligatory big dumb wall of puns to cap this review off.
Sly 4 has its own temporal flaws, and I had trouble re-Cooper-ating from the long load times, but the polished visuals and control scheme overall left me begging for Murray. It stole my heart, and you should try it as well. You'll have a great time.
Ick. I gotta wash my tongue out after that one...