Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time Review - Congratulations, Sanzaru.

Well, this is it. My first highly anticipated game of 2013 is now here. Around two years ago, I reviewed the original trilogy of SlyCooper games for the PlayStation 2 in commemoration of the announcement of Thieves in Time. Certainly not some of my best material, especially Sly 3’s review, but nonetheless, it did a…passable job of explaining why I love this franchise and what it meant to my childhood. So, Sanzaru Games, the developer who crafted this latest entry, had some pretty high standards to live up to, and I would be lying if I said that once the “Holy crap, they’re seriously making another one” feeling began to fade away, I…started having my doubts. Outside of ports, the only credit on Sanzaru’s resume was an ungodly overpriced piece of Wii shovelware garbage: not something that would give one much faith, obviously. At the same time, the game looked great and the developers seemed like they genuinely cared about it. They only took on the challenge, after all, because they were such big fans of the series and as I saw more and more, I grew more willing to trust these strange folks that they wouldn’t allow Sly to go the way of Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon.

And they didn’t. Thank God.

Eh, so, presentation. For the most part, it’s pretty great. The soundtrack may not be the most memorable you’ll ever hear, but it’s very true to its roots in its style and instrumentation. And visually, Thieves in Time is fantastic. Character models and in-game animations may look a little off at first, but they do grow on you. The real strength lies in the environments. Ho-ly crap.  After the 3-D platforming genre lost prominence, I thought I’d never see the “cartoon” look done so well like this. Cel-shading is, of course, used liberally, but it really works, and each of the game’s individual environments explodes with color and inspiration. I haven’t seen environments this amazing and lively in a 3-D platformer since…well…Sly 3. And just like in the original trilogy, enemy designs are every bit a part of the environment and atmosphere as the scenery, and it all comes together extremely well. And character animations in in-engine cutscenes are something to behold.

Now, when I commend the cutscene animations, I don’t mean that they’re all that much more impressive than anything else on the market. To fully appreciate it, you need to look at it in the context of the series. See, for as well as the original trilogy captured the feeling that you were playing a cartoon, it never did much to capture the feeling of watching one. Cutscene animation in the PS2 games was…stiff and awkward at best, especially facial-wise. Of course, there were always the narrated Flash sequences between chapters of the story (and those are just as abundant here), but in-engine cutscenes always looked kind of…eh. In Thieves in Time, the in-engine cutscenes actually look better than the Flash ones – ehm, make of that what you will, but they’re quite awesome. The characters are very…well…animated, and oft-times I felt less like I was watching a video game cutscene and more like I was watching the latest from Dreamworks.

Yes. *sigh* Dreamworks.
Yes, I do love this image.

Yeah, if I may be up-front about this? The “humor” can get downright horrendous. I mean, it’s not all bad by any means. For at least half the time, it’s the same kind of stuff you would find in the original trilogy – cheesy, charming, Saturday morning cartoon-inspired writing interspersed with self-aware remarks and occasionally genuine wit. That stuff works. Then you have the fart jokes and the halitosis jokes and the jokes about the name “El Jefe” possibly being Spanish for “Big Baby” because comedy.  There are jokes about stepping in horse manure, jokes about a “rice and bean” flavored lollipop, obvious jokes regarding the fact that one of the main villains just so happens to be a skunk, and generally pathetic attempts at wisecracking more befitting of an episode of Johnny Test than Sly Cooper. It’s simply disgraceful, and while, again, the script had plenty of good bits to offset the pain, the awful lines really stood out.

In fact, to be perfectly honest here, the story in general is probably both one of the game’s strengths and its biggest disappointment. Character-wise, it’s arguably even better than ever. Sly, Bentley and “The Murray” are all just as awesome as they ever were, and due to her role in the story, Carmelita actually ends up being even more awesome. But it’s not just the main recurring cast. The game is, after all, about going back in time and saving Sly’s Cooper ancestors, and the ancestors and their interactions with the main cast lead to a lot of really entertaining moments. It even sets up some development of Sly and Carmelita’s relationship, as Carmelita, still bitter about Sly tricking her at the end of the third game, finds herself appreciating the company of his ancestors more. While the game ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, the development does go places, and it’s great. And, of course, the various villains are every bit as fun and memorable as ever and I simply love to hate them. Oh, and the climax was fantastic, too. I don’t want to spoil anything, of course, but I will say that nearly every character gets a moment to shine and it is awesome.
Art and animation in the Flash cutscenes aren't really the best, but to be frank, they never were.
But while the story stirs up character development with Sly and Carmelita, with the help of one of the most thoroughly idiotic and downright contrived twists I’ve seen Metal Gear Solid 2, it single-handedly destroys some on Bentley’s end and completely ruins a pretty decent character introduced in a previous game. The ending even pours salt in the wound, implying that, if this game gets a sequel, this is going to result in something of an arc. Hopefully they’ll either retcon it into something less mind-bogglingly inane or simply drop it altogether, but it’s enough to make one sick. There are a handful of other lame plot points, too, and to put it simply, the story is just a bit of a mixed bag. It’s got its really enjoyable aspects and some that…really aren’t so great.

So aside from some disappointing story elements, is there anything else worthy of note that Sanzaru got wrong? Well…a few things, but nothing serious. But before I get into that, I should go over how the game plays. Problem with that is that Sly is by its very nature an extremely varied game, so there’s quite a lot to go over. At the most basic level, it’s an open-world sandbox platforming game with heavy emphasis on stealth elements. Then you factor in all of the different mission objectives and playable characters on top of the ones they’ve added for this installment, Sly’s alternate costumes and the various mini-games peppered throughout the five episodes and there’s a lot of ground to cover. It only lasts about fifteen hours – not a problem given the 40-dollar price tag – but this is by no means a small game.

Now, I’m going to be pretentious and call back to my review of Sly 3, in which I complained that there was almost too much variety in its gameplay styles and the entire game ended up feeling inconsistent because of it, blaming it partially on some of the various characters introduced in that installment. I regret presenting this criticism in such a way as, while I still think Sly 3 went so far as to devolve into the identity crisis sin known as “genre roulette”, in the end, every new character and mechanic introduced in Sly Cooper brings an entirely new gameplay style with it, just within the same game space. And really, I think that’s pretty awesome.  Beyond Sly 1, at least, Sly isn’t a series you can go into expecting to do even remotely the same thing each time you play – it’s a series where you just have to buckle up and go wherever the ride takes you. You have to go in with no expectations other than a lot of surprises. At its best, everything falls together so seamlessly that inconsistency doesn’t become a problem.

Thieves in Time handles this extremely well. Main character Sly Cooper, of course, shows off the series’ gameplay at its most pure. Out of the main trio, he gets the majority of the missions involving acrobatics and heavy platforming. Bentley, on the other hand, is a more technical-minded type, using more explosives and long-ranged projectiles in his missions as well as partaking in the occasional hacking mini-game.  Murray is a fighter and, as such, takes on jobs requiring his strength. And, of course, the Cooper ancestors, while playing similarly to Sly at the core, have unique abilities and attributes that don’t seem like they would affect things so much, but end up creating entirely new styles of play in their own right. Tennessee Kid Cooper’s cane doubles as a gun that leads to some strong third-person shooting on his end as well as a Sonic-tastic ability to switch rails in the middle of a grind. “Bob” Cooper’s ability to climb walls of ice leads to parkour platforming of a very different sort, and the same can be said for Sir Galleth’s ability to quickly bounce between wall hooks.  The abilities of Riochi Cooper and Salim Al-Kupar aren’t quite as game-changing, but are utilized very well in their own right. That’s not even going into Sly’s various costume abilities, which each give their own attributes to said character and do their part to change things up as well. What’s extremely impressive is how nearly every mission with each character finds a new and often inventive way to play his strengths – not only are the characters highly varied, but the mission structure is as well. Sly’s costume abilities, in particular, are used in a lot of cool and imaginative ways that ensure that they’re more than just a boring gimmick.

The one character I really felt was seriously underused was Carmelita. About halfway through episode 2, she becomes fully playable for the first time ever in the series. She’s selectable from the hideout and you can buy all kinds of upgrades for her. This was one thing I was really excited about, since I thought it meant I would get to control her more and that her gameplay from Sly 3 would be expanded upon. ...I didn’t and it wasn’t. I suppose it is somewhat justified by Tennessee Kid Cooper doing most of the third-person shooting, but it just makes her feel sort of pointless – like she’s just there to be there. Oh, you use her occasionally, but the moments are so few and far between that you have to wonder why they made her playable in the first place.

The inconsistency of Sly 3 came more from the overuse of vehicle segments and other superfluous gameplay elements that didn’t serve to build onto what was already there and, in fact, detracted from the time spent with it. Thieves in Time, fortunately, does not suffer from this problem. Complaints do abound of the overuse of mini-game segments such as with the RC vehicles and computer hacking with Bentley, as well as a number of others. But while it perhaps has more than would be ideal, unlike with Sly 3, I never found them intrusive on the experience and I generally enjoyed them for what they were when they showed up. In particular, I always found myself getting a kick out of the “Alter Ego” hacking mini-games (one of the three types you’ll encounter along the way), which are 2-D scrolling space shooter-type deals.

But there was one variety of them that I really didn’t like, and no, it wasn’t this part (although I wouldn’t call it pleasant) or…even…(spoiler warning) this part, (probably one of the most uncomfortable gaming experiences I've had in awhile) but rather the downright offensive Sixaxis mini-games. Oh, they’re mercifully short, yes, and there aren’t too many of them, but I’m sorry. Unless you want to cause pointless frustration, you do not use the Sixaxis gimmick and you especially don’t use it in Sly Cooper. Out of all of the moronic gimmicks I’ve seen throughout my life, the Sixaxis controller is one of the most disgustingly vapid, and it’s never felt like such a slap in the face as in Thieves in Time. They even force you to use it when opening safes in the game, and it’s every bit as ungodly frustrating as you would expect. I’m really not one of those people who thinks that motion controls are inherently awful and, in fact, I’ve seen them used very well, but you don’t just stick a motion sensor in a run-of-the-mill gaming controller and expect everything to work out. That’s just unintelligent. But back to the game itself.

One thing that stood out to me about Thieves in Time was that it almost seemed to take a “best of both worlds” approach in reviving the series. The original Sly Cooper was a linear platformer a bit more typical of its genre. You had hub worlds and such, but most of the time was spent in segregated levels with an emphasis on getting from point A to point B. Sly 2 was basically a complete retool in which all missions took place in a single large hub world, being based on completing objectives instead of completing individual levels. Thieves in Time takes the big hub worlds introduced in Sly 2 and has several missions that take place within them, but also has about half the missions taking place in isolated, “level”-like areas. And it works. The hub worlds are actually larger than ever, and while that may seem like an odd decision given what I just said, exploring them is worthwhile joy in and of itself. Clue bottles return from the second game and collecting all of them will allow you to open a safe containing a treasure that gives you some special ability. There are also plenty of individual treasures that you can find and add to your collection provided you bring them back to your hideout in time. This brings not only monetary rewards but also unlocks various other goodies in the hideout. There are also Sly Masks hidden throughout the game, which unlock various cheat codes. Oh, and it’s not all completely superfluous. While the collect-a-thon is completely optional, you need a Platinum Trophy to see the secret ending. Since there are no good guides yet, it seems I’ll have to wait on that. Aww.

But anyway, item collection aside, the overworld is still used very well. As already mentioned, almost every mission has you doing something completely different, and even the ones that use familiar gimmicks such as taking pictures and following the villain of the week put a new twist on it. However, it’s in the "levels" where the game really shines. Not only do these also serve to emphasize the variety of the game, but Sanzaru has done a commendable job of crafting each with all of the love and effort you would have expected out of the original Sucker Punch trilogy. They certainly may not be as stunningly innovative as what you might find in a modern Mario game (although the creativity is still very much there, make no mistake about that) or as wacky and out there as the kinds of worlds we see in some of Sonic’s latest adventures, but through their own methods, they always find new ways to entertain with the way they constantly switch gears, utilize the game’s mechanics and at times even offer a compelling challenge. The platforming in Thieves in Time isn’t quite as forgiving of screw-ups as its predecessors, but checkpoints are generous, ensuring that frustration with the game’s design is a rarity at best. And stealth is still incorporated into the levels just as well as ever. Through and through, this is Sly Cooper.

I suppose there is one pervasive problem that I really need to point out, though, and that is the vile load times. Oh, this game loves to load, and while it doesn’t do it as horribly often as the likes of Sonic 06, when it does do it, oho, it goes all out. I actually counted how long it took for the game to load once after I died and it was nearly a full minute. What’s baffling about this is that the game is otherwise polished to a shine; I fail to see how the loading could be this bad. It’s a problem you’ll forgive just because of how good the bits in between are, but it’s a consistently annoying one. But other than that and my gripes with the story and Carmelita’s underuse (and, naturally, the Sixaxis bullcrap), this game…really was a pleasure to play throughout.

I still remember the utter disappointment when I first completed Sly 3 and feared that one of my favorite platforming franchises had just met its end. At the age of 9 and until literally six years later, I could only dream of what a new Sly game would be like. I remember, as a kid, hoping every year that Sony would come out and announce that Sly would be making his glorious return, and when the fated day finally came, I was simply ecstatic. Now that I’ve actually completed the game, I’m just that much more satisfied and I really feel like all of my nostalgia for the series was done justice. All the little disappointments I had along the way never felt like they mattered much in comparison to the things that impressed me. Sanzaru Games, against all odds, has delivered something that really feels special.

Of course, the critics can whine and moan and complain all day about how it’s “doing nothing new” and “playing it too safe” and you know what? It is playing it safe, but that’s exactly what I wanted. It’s the first Sly game in eight years – would we really want a revival of such a long-dormant series to completely overhaul everything or would we want it to remind us of what made the original games so great to begin with? I personally think the critics are missing the point here. I mean, I don’t want it to stay this way forever. If this game gets a sequel – and it deserves one – I do want to see some legitimate innovation brought to the table. But this wasn’t the game that needed to do that. To use a phrase often used jokingly in the Sonic fanbase, Thieves in Time is “Sly 4 as I truly imagined it” and I freaking love it. To compare it to the rest of the series, I think the easiest way to do so is to be pretentious again and bring up my reviews of the original trilogy. In those reviews, I gave Sly 1 a 7.5, Sly 2 a 9 and Sly 3 an 8. I don’t usually give scores anymore, but following that line of thought, I think I’d give Thieves in Time something around an 8.5. It has some bothersome problems, but it all comes together really well in the end. Here’s to hoping it sells well enough for a sequel and revives this franchise for good.

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