Review: Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time
After a lengthy hiatus, and a recent HD re-release of the earlier titles, Sly Cooper is finally back for some fresh larceny. Previous franchise holders Sucker Punch have passed the reins on to Sanzaru games, the chaps who engineered the re-release for the original trilogy last year. Time travel is the order of the day this time around, and fittingly, Sly 4 feels a lot like the older PS2 games, for better and for worse.
At the end of Sly 3, Cooper had given up on his life of crime, to start a more lawful relationship with his longtime pursuer, Carmelita Fox. It’s not long before Sly is drawn back into the thieving game, as pages of the Thievius Raccoonus start erasing themselves. Sly reconnects with pals Bentley and Murray, and they soon deduce that they need to head back in time to fix the timestream, and save Sly’s ancestors.
As far as the gameplay goes, it follows a very similar structure to the previous titles. You travel to a new location, clamber about a bit, do some recon, steal some stuff and beat the boss. The time travel aspect is the only real difference between this and the older titles, but it does help keep the places you visit and the characters you meet nice and varied.
The timezones you visit are all unique, and have their own personalities. The Japanese world, one of the first you visit, contains bamboo stalks, ornate temples, sushi restaurants and pagoda roofs by the dozen. The Wild West has a train circling the level, wanted posters, saloons and varmints all over the place. Each area is dripping with interesting things to climb up, and getting about is a dream. Vines and ropes cover the skyline, and Sly can navigate these quickly and smoothly, letting you get about the place without frustration.
Also mixing things up are the characters you control. Sure, Sly is handy for your day to day exploration, but in missions you get to use the brawling hippo, Murray, and the techno-hacking turtle, Bentley. Their skills vary wildly, and each have their own upgrade paths with interesting things to play with. You also get one ancestor per timezone too, usually a reskin of Sly with a unique ability or two. For example, Tennessee Kid Cooper in the Wild West has a pistol in his cane, handy for shooting far away targets.
The missions change constantly, and the gameplay shifts keep everything moving along at a nice pace. Even during a single mission, you might find yourself beating up a bunch of baddies as Murray, sneaking into a facility as Sly, and hacking into a safe as Bentley. The ancestors get their own unique missions too, utilising their varying abilities. This is all stuff you’ve done before though in the previous games, and Sly 4 does little to differentiate itself from previous titles as far as gameplay goes.
In the middle of all this, you’ll also find stacks of minigames to play, sometimes utilising the PS3/Vita’s motion controls. These are, of course, wildly different each time, and usually involve some unique mission. For instance, there’s a collection of six minigames, one after the other, but set to the backdrop of a training montage for an out-of-shape ancestor. This turned what could have been a repetitive mess into one of the most charming moments of the game. The minigames control well enough, but some of them can outstay their welcome. Some of Bentley’s hacking minigames can get a bit tedious, and this leads on nicely to Sly 4’s biggest problem.
You see, Sly 4 is fun, and charming, and looks great, but each segment drags on far longer than it should. The variance of characters and missions help alleviate this problem, but the game doesn’t seem to know when to call it quits on an area. Inside of missions, you won’t be grabbing one item, it’ll be three. You won’t need to tail a guy to three points, it’ll be six. You spend far too long in each timezone too, and it feels like if they’re two or three missions longer than they need to be.
The charm and humour of the game do make great strides into making up for the artificial length of the game. The dialogue is cheesy and amusing, with corny jokes being cracked all the time. You can’t help but smile at some of the conversations, and this extends out to the missions too. The tailing mission mentioned in the last paragraph is made less frustrating by having to tail someone who can’t get phone reception, and his call keeps dropping mid way. This context is well written, makes sense, and is highly amusing to watch play out. The enemies all have nice visual flourishes too, and differentiate themselves nicely between timezones.
The variety on show here is impressive, but works ultimately to the detriment of the game. It’s just too damned long, and frankly, does little to elevate itself above the PS2 trilogy. Sly 4 could have easily been a PS2 game, and it would have been a solid entry in the franchise five years ago. These days though, we expect a little more from our platformers, and while Sly retains the personality that makes it stand out, it’s lacking in the imagination that other long standing franchises have employed, like Mario, or Ratchet and Clank. It’s fun, sure, but it would have been nice to see the series try something new.