Fans are a fickle bunch, rarely accepting of change. Dare to give a character a new haircut, or hire a new voice actor, and they'll parade forums, threatening boycotts and other general nastiness. But, stick too closely to an established formula, and gamers will complain of staleness. How does a developer find that delicate balance when creating a sequel?
Developer Sanzaru Games has an even more difficult task at hand. The Sly Cooper franchise has been dormant for over seven years, and the original trilogy has been placed on a pedestal for many. To make matters worse, how can a new developer take over the reigns from now-Infamous developer, Sucker Punch? Although Thieves in Time has all these handicaps going against it, Sanzaru Games not only makes a sequel befitting of the franchise, but raises the bar. Sly 4 isn't just a love letter to fans--it is one of the finest platformers to ever grace a PlayStation system.
What makes Thieves in Time so successful is that it never forgets what made the original games so charming to begin with. Sly and the rest of the gang are back, with all the witty banter that defined the first three adventures. This is a smartly written game, with tons of sly (pun intended) comments, and plenty of gags. The dynamic between Bentley, Murray, and the other cast of heroes is a joy to experience, and it's made even better by the power of current-gen technology.
Stellar animation really sells the entire experience. Not only can you hear the exasperation in Bentley's voice in mission briefings, but you can see through his emotive expressions. Nothing needs to be said when Sly gloats about his latest score--you can see it through his motions. While the in-engine animation is top-notch, the many cel animated shorts are even more visually stunning. Why is there no Sly Cooper cartoon series, Sony?!
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Thieves in Time makes us wonder why more games haven't aped the franchise's winning mix of stealth, action, and platforming. Long before Altair put on his hood, Sly was jumping atop buildings, eavesdropping for clues, and pickpocketing enemies. Given its diverse roster, the Sly series enables a lot of gameplay variety. However, Sly 4 constantly surprises with its inventive scenarios and missions. Some of the things you'll do:
- seduce guards by doing a dance routine as a hippo dressed in drag
- play through a training montage (with cheesy background music, to boot!) to get a certain ancestor back in shape
- participate in a giant mech battle
- have an ice skating competition against a rapping bear
This list doesn't even mention the many mini-games you'll play as Bentley, nor the unique powers introduced by Cooper's various costumes and ancestors. You could be playing a third-person shooter at one moment, only to play a brawler afterwards. These disparate game types are all handled remarkably well, and made cohesive with a story that repeatedly culminates in an elaborate heist--and a boss battle, of course.
Being able to effortlessly switch between all these gameplay types is a remarkable achievement on Sanzaru's part. It's even more impressive that Thieves in Time features five large playgrounds to explore as well, each area being far bigger and more detailed than what would be possible in the PS2 era. And here's the cherry on top: having such a gorgeous, ambitious game run smoothly not only on PS3, but on Vita as well.
Thieves in Time is one of the few games to really execute on Vita's promise of having PS3 games on-the-go. You can start the game on PS3, use cross-save to upload your progress to the cloud, and resume your game on Vita without having to make any significant sacrifices. The game is just as pretty on Vita, although the PS3 version has a higher framerate, faster loadtimes, and less compression during cinematics.
Sanzaru must be commended for crafting a game that not only delivers on all of its promises, but goes well beyond them. Thieves in Time is a gorgeous, intelligent, and fun adventure that gamers--Sly fans and newcomers alike--will love. One can only hope that we won't have to wait another seven years for a Sly 5.
This Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time review is based on a debug PlayStation 3 and retail Vita version of the game provided by the publisher.