Cartoon raccoons who happen to count a hippo and a turtle as sidekicks are surprisingly rare in modern entertainment. The cute ringtail, the little furry face mask, the lovable whiskers – all of these features add up to create a huggable little bundle of fluff. Perhaps it’s just the nearly eight years we have had to endure without a game featuring Sly Cooper as the main character that has us coming over all nostalgic, but in a world now dominated by mincing gun-toting marines it seems almost anachronistic to return to a hero armed only with a cap and a cane. But return we do, and the unique fusion of stealth platforming action so well regarded in the past is present still in Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. This time, however, the control has been passed from original developers Sucker Punch over to Sanzaru Games, who you may remember from the recent HD ports of the original Sly trilogy.
Thieves in Time picks up the action pretty much where Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves left us, with Sly faking amnesia in order to sustain a relationship with the ever delectable Carmelita Fox. It’s not long however until Bentley realises that pages within the Thievius Raccoonus (a record of the Cooper family’s skills – keep up!) are mysteriously erasing themselves. Having already conveniently invented a time machine Bentley grabs both Murray and Sly and heads into the past to combat who or whatever is messing with the history of the Cooper Clan. Each of the characters is exactly as you remember them – Bentley may still be wheelchair-bound but he makes up for it with his technical tinkerings, while Murray (‘The Murray’, in his own words) is weighty as the beefcake muscle of the gang. And Sly? Apart from the addition of a fashionable hint of a beard this is still the agile thieving raccoon that you should all know and love. Their timely return is made all the better by the fact that Sanzaru have been able to secure the talents of all of the original voice cast, ensuring that even after this long wait the characters sound exactly as they should. Oh, and they managed to get video gaming voice actor superstar Nolan North in to do a couple of turns as well, but, then again, who can’t?
With the story set then, the action sees our thieving heroes travel to five different time periods to save the day and stop the past being re-written. Each one of these time periods provides both an open world hub as well as linear platforming missions to progress the story. These open worlds are perfectly sized, providing just the right amount of sandbox action compared to story progression. The streets and roofscapes prove themselves to be more than adequate for tests of platforming skill, although Thieves in Time is clearly intended to be more of an accessible title than a challenging one. These sandboxes all contain thirty message bottles and twelve treasures each, with the treasures acting as a series of mini-races as you dash to get them back to your hideout before the clock runs out. Unlike many other modern games the collectables never really reach the level of frustration with most becoming apparent through normal progression through the time zone, although you’ll inevitably spend more time looking for the last two bottles than you did the previous twenty-eight.
Potentially the only real issue with the open worlds is the fact that more often than not you’ll only want to play in them as Sly or the related ancestor. Sure, the odd binge of Murray power or Carmelita gun action can prove a cathartic distraction to all the Sly-sneaking you’ll be undertaking, but in reality the star of the show is still Sly and the levels are all designed around his ability. In fact, the most joyful way to move around any of the levels is to utilise the jump and stick mechanic where you jump towards a piece of the scenery with shiny blue sparkles and then hit circle to stick to it. While the mechanics feel like a quant step into the past they do work and open up many interesting routes that you simply can’t access while playing as the rest of the gang.
The story missions work slightly differently, concentrating you on a single path through a preset level and posing specific platforming challenges. The checkpoints throughout are very generous with the main intention of the game being to guide you through the story rather than stall you on arbitrary skill challenges. While each member of the gang gets a turn throughout the various missions Sly is still the darling, the daring hero of the game. Fantastically enough the time travelling mechanic has been used to great effect with the story missions, with Bentley’s time machine in each hub world’s base allowing you to travel to any past mission in order to replay it. This allows you to replay your favourite moments, or return to find hidden masks you may have missed the first time round. Access to played missions is a great feature for any game to have and it’s made all the more impressive here by the fact that the development team have managed to include it in an uncontrived in-game way.
Progression through the story and the associated time periods offers the player the chance to recruit Sly’s ancestors into the gang. These Coopers, from cave-racoon through to honourable knight, are Sanzaru’s stamp on the Sly franchise. Also unlocked in each period is a new costume for Sly, offering him various abilities such as immunity to fire and a crazy pounce jump. These costumes are not only required for progression past certain story events but also allow you to access various parts of the open worlds that were otherwise inaccessible for you (the so called ‘costume gates’). A casual player may well ignore most of them most of the time, but the completionist will be driven to revisit past levels and use their new toys to catch all those collectables. Playing it conservatively with the rest of the game the ancestors and costumes allow Sanzaru to move beyond Sucker Punch’s vision, to pose their own ‘What if?’ questions within the Sly universe and then to see the answers. You want to see what it would be like if Sly was a bit of a scary hulk? No problem! How about giving him a gun? They’ve got that covered. With Sly himself exactly as you remember him these opportunities to play with the Sly character concept re-imagined not only opens up Thieves in Time but also breathes fresh air into the Sly franchise itself.
Unfortunately though it’s not all sunshine and roses. The interaction between the hidden bases, the open worlds and the linear mission section has come at the cost of annoyingly long loading times. Fancy starting a mission? Loading screen. Want to re-enter the hub and pick another one of the gang to play as? Two loading screens. Have a hankering to run around looking for collectables? Here, at least, you are covered - the open worlds are seamless once you are in them, but it is only with the greatest reluctance you will want to return to the hub to pick another character to bum around as. Another disappointment is that when compared to the game running on PS3 the Vita version suddenly loses some of its shine, the lower framerate and weaker graphics suddenly noticeable when put side by side. Thieves in Time is a beast of a game to fit onto the Vita, and some form of compromise was always to be expected, it’s just such a shame that it sometimes gets in the way of action or pushes you towards interacting with the game in a less experimental way.
Moving away from the main gameplay and Thieves in Time is still chock full of mini-games, although thankfully they don’t overpower the game. Usually taking the form of a Bentley hack they add short bouts of differentiation, with the accelerometer put to good use in one example. Additionally, these hacking games have longer versions available for unlocking in each of your hidden bases should you collect all the treasures that time period has to offer. The stand out mini games are all away from these hacking efforts however, with special mention having to go to a particular montage sequence appearing roughly midway in the game. Riffing on popular cinema and mixed in with a good amount of irreverent humour it laughs at the question of whether Sly could still be relevant to the modern gaming scene and demonstrates that all a game need offer is simply to be fun.
So, that’s Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time then. A last generation concept spruced up in higher definition, given a bit of spit and polish and sent out with a couple of new mechanics. It’s a fitting progression for any fans that had been waiting patiently for so long and an appropriate introduction for newcomers to the series, harking back as it does to the days when games were simpler and the only customer expectation they had was that the person behind the controller would be too busy enjoying the experience to care about some of the little things. Let’s hope that if Sanzaru are handed the reins again that they take the responsibility in hand and drive Sly in their own direction, and fingers crossed that our favourite cartoon racoon isn’t waiting so long this time for his next outing.