I always get this sinking feeling when I discover a new developer has taken over the reins of a beloved franchise. In my mind, developer Sucker Punch and Sly Cooper (and the antics of his merry band of thieves) were synonymous. Up until a few years ago, I was still hoping that the lads at Sucker Punch would craft another Sly Cooper game. But for all intends and purposes, it’s become clear that they had moved on; Infamous is where their bread is buttered now.
“Bentley-san, though the bamboo forest is dense, water flows through it, without effort” – Rioichi Cooper, Ninja Master and Sushi-chef
My hopes for another Sly Cooper game slowly made way to the era of the combat shooter du jour. I rapidly lost myself in a hail of bullets and jarhead military jargon. The platformer was dead. Or so I thought. You see, Sly Cooper, much like Ratchet and Clank and even the now-forgotten Crash Bandicoot are what I would consider part of the Golden Age of PlayStation Gaming. Iconic characters that solidified a new era of gaming. They were new and fresh, but for reasons unknown the transition to our current-gen, left them frozen in time. Artefacts of a different era. Current gamers were less interested in the platformers of old, and even less so for niche titles like Ratchet and Clank, or Jax and Daxter.
A wild Sanzaru appears…
And that’s partly where the sinking feeling in my stomach came from. Would a new studio capture the essence of Sly Cooper? Would they re-imagine the series? Would the Cooper gang be re-invented with atrocious life-like graphics (fitting of this current graphics-obsessed generation)? I hastily googled the new developer, and discovered that their recent claim to fame was a HD spit-shine of the original PlayStation 2 trilogy. My heart sank. I reluctantly slipped the PS3 disk into my PS3, and there it was… the promised land – a cel-shaded introduction screen. My eyes widened, my heart started racing. I pressed start.
The Gang is Back!
The good news is that the gang is back (albeit a little older and probably a little wiser). Sly Cooper, the nimble, and wise-cracking ring-tailed protagonist is flung out of retirement and joined by his friends, the erudite (i.e. the “Brains of the Operation”) tortoise, Bentley, and the fist-pounding hippo enforcer, “The Murray”. Later on, Sly’s main “squeeze”, and Interpol’s greatest investigator, Carmelita Fox (reluctantly) joins the Cooper gang, on their time-bending caper, and lends her gun to the festivities. I’ll admit that I miss the spunky and fiery version of Carmelita Fox (from the first game). Ms Fox was definitely not the Inspector Clouseau to Sly’s Pink Panther (for Heaven’s sake she aimed and fired a rocket launcher at the Ring-tailed Master Thief). But, perhaps age had a soothing effect on even the most fiery of vixens.
The obvious question on any Sly Cooper fan’s lips would be, what could possibly bring Sly out of retirement? Could it be the possibility of the greatest heist of all time?
The game’s introduction explains that while Sly managed to hang up his trusty cane, old habits die hard. But, the real trigger involved a strange development with the Cooper family’s most valuable heirloom, the Thievius Raccoonus. For some mysterious reason, the pages of the Cooper Clan’s thief manual were being erased of all its secrets. Something nefarious was happening in the distant past, and only Cooper and his gang (armed with Bentley’s time machine) can untangle the mysterious temporal knot.
Let’s do the Time Warp again…
Regardless of a few technical hiccups, or the goof-ball time-travel storyline, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time carries a charm that can’t be denied. In the past, I’ve always viewed story that involve time-travel with contempt. This is partly because I could never shake the feeling that the story writers had exhausted all possible story options, and are left relying on an overused trope.
But, Sly’s latest adventure allows Sanzaru to show off their technical wizardry. It allows them to add a few more interesting characters to the fold. For instance, to uncover why the Thievius Raccoonus is slowly turning into a blank moleskin journal, Sly is forced to help his distant kin. This is where the game truly shines. The various ancestors comes with separate story chapters and very different “hub worlds”. While the individual chapters tend to have very similar themes (i.e. Sly and co. must orchestrate a plan to rescue an ancestor from the clutches of evil, and then recruit this specific individual to help them free the world of said evil), the ancestors are sufficiently different. The agile and reserved ninja, Riochi Cooper is a world apart from Sly’s prehistoric, club-wielding Ice-Age ancestor, “Bob”, and the gun-wielding smooth-talking Tennessee Cooper is an excellent counterpoint to the elderly and sombre, Salim Al-Kupar.
In addition to Sly’s ancestors (and the hilarity that spews from their interactions with Sly and co), the size of the individual hub areas is something that surprised me. It takes a while to familiarise yourself with a new area, and with the addition of collectibles (scroll bottles, masks and treasures), the possibility of revisiting areas is virtually assured.
The collectibles are not merely fodder for unlocking trophies. Treasures (artefacts) scattered across the map require you to safely transport them back to your hideout (obviously with a count-down clock in the corner). Once you’ve collected all of them (for a specific hub area), they unlock an arcade cabinet (and game, generally one inspired by Bentley’s hacking mini-game). The masks on the other hand unlock different skins for Sly’s glider and even additional outfits for your party. Since the game allows you to explore the game hubs as either Sly or his friends, some collectibles are only accessible through either one of Sly’s unlocked abilities, or through the talents of his friends. I should probably mention that amongst Sly’s arsenal is a number of abilities that unlock as part of various hub-specific outfits. One in particular is a sabre-tooth tiger pelt that allows you to pounce on enemies (or leap great distances). Another is a Prince of Persia-inspired outfit that even helps you to slow down time.
A Question of Roadkill…
It’s been just over a decade since I played the first Sly Cooper game (Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus). I am mindful that nostalgia can sometimes cloud our memories, and leave us with a completely distorted and overbearingly positive account of the past. But, the first Sly Cooper game blew my mind with its breathtakingly beautiful cel-shaded graphics and the near-perfect use of stealth & combat. The cherry-on-the-top was undoubtedly the challenging and rewarding puzzles. On the first two points, Sanzaru has definitely delivered. They’ve crafted a title that’s worthy of the Sly Cooper name. However, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with the game’s difficulty. It’s a minor issue, but I always remembered Sly requiring a bit more brain power. The puzzles in Thieves in Time are just too easy (with much of the focus being on the mini-games). If there was one thing I could change it would be to add a bit more complexity to the game. There are glimpses of puzzle perfection, but those moments are lost amidst a crazy collection of mini-games.
The mini-games are best described as being slightly schizophrenic. There are some memorable ones like Carmelita’s sultry Guitar Hero-inspired belly dance, or even Murray’s foray into cross-dressing, or even Bentley’s hilarious take on the Arcade classic, Tapper. While, most of the mini-games are mercifully short, there are a few that overstay their welcome. One in particular is one of Bentley’s hacking mini-games that takes you back to the early days of the PS3 – where every title wanted to make use of the dual shock controller’s three-axis gyroscope.
The other major issue relates to the ridiculous load times. The review code didn’t install onto the harddrive. Instead, it took my PS3 on a spinning class. I hope that the retail copy allows you to install to your harddrive, because as it currently stands, the loading times between starting your game, or exiting the Gang’s hideout to the greater game’s world hubs is shocking. The silver lining to this cloud is that it reminded me why I install my PS3 games, and why I don’t have a problem with install times.
Enter the Vita?
But wait… there’s more!
Sly’s latest title forms part of Sony’s CrossPlay program. In a nutshell, that means that every PS3 copy of Sly Cooper: Thieves In Time also comes with a download code (for the Vita version). Since, CrossPlay is built into both versions, you can share your cloud-based saves between the two versions, and continue your game at your leisure. Sadly, my review copy didn’t come with a Vita code, but, if you’re a fellow Sly Cooper fan, and you’d like to take the gang on the road, this is an excellent deal.
At its core, Sly Cooper pays homage to a genre of games, that I honestly thought died off during the PlayStation’s Golden Era. It’s a delightful title that reminds us that 3D platformers can still deliver if given the chance. The effect is almost the same as when Rayman Origins reminded us that 2D platformers could be visually stunning, or how Telltale’s Walking Dead proved the critics of the point-and-click adventure genre wrong. Of course, if it was handled any differently, Sly Cooper could have easily been lumped amongst the awkward, irrelevant atrocities of gaming.
At the end, all I can say, is that Sanzaru has a new fan.