Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time Review (PS3)

Nostalgia can be a curious thing. Take the Sly Cooper games for example. Born out of the PS2 era of chunky cartoon characters and godawful camera controls, Sly’s three adventures were solid efforts if hardly in the top tier of 3D platforming.

But with nearly eight years having passed since Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves, and a current gaming climate where even original developer Sucker Punch’s games are full of guns, grime and psychokinetic holocausts, the franchise’s family-friendly ways now engender a warm, fuzzy glow in the hearts of fans for simpler, less electrically violent days.

Sly's medieval ancestor: robbing from the rich, possibly not giving to the poor

Fresh off their work on the Sly Collection HD updates, new series developer Sanzaru Games have picked up where Sly 3 left off, both in terms of plot and design. Sure, there’s heaps of sometimes distracting high definition paint sprucing things up, and a kitchen sink’s worth of half-formed ideas flung into the mix, but, ironically for a game based around time travel, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is very much rooted in the past. Worryingly, that’s the best thing about it.

The game’s plot is paper thin, as Sly finds that pages are being erased from the Thievius Raccoonus, his tome that collects all the multi-generational knowledge of the Cooper Clan, meaning that someone is meddling with his family’s timeline. It’s a hoary sci-fi staple, but it does give the developer an excuse to send Sly and his friends - brainiac wheelchair-bound turtle Bentley and Murray the lumbering hunk of hippo muscle - on a journey through the time vortex to some of history’s most varied (if a tad obvious) time periods.

Each episode of the adventure plays out roughly the same: Sly and co rock up in a particular time zone and must complete a series of missions to identify and rescue his ancestor, before teaming up to take down whichever henchman is handling matters in this period for the shadowy mastermind behind the entire plot.

The missions involve venturing out from the gang’s hideout across a small 3D townscape and completing various objectives. Sly’s not the only character on offer, though: Bentley, Murray and (once you’ve broken them out of lockdown) whichever ancestor is on hand all have their own individual missions to fulfill, and even Sly’s one-time antagonist now girlfriend Carmelita Fox gets added to the roster later on.

Describing the mission content as varied would be doing it an injustice. The developers, it seems, have literally thrown every idea they came up with into the game, from straightforward cross-rooftop stealth platforming to maze levels, shootouts, quicktime events and more, each requiring you to employ the differing special abilities of the cast.

The Cooper hideout is cluttered up by too many characters

Too often, though, they take the form of a bewildering variety of mini-games. Some, such as Bentley’s hacking endeavours being represented as side-scrolling or twin-stick arcade shooters, are moderate chunks of fun, if hardly testing. Others - including a music rhythm game that sees Murray dressed as a geisha dancing for a group of slavering pig guards (it’s nowhere near as funny as that sounds) - outstay their welcome very, very quickly. The developer also seems to have missed the memo from 2007 that using Sixaxis motion controls inevitably leads to dire results.

It doesn’t end there. Back in his hideout, the player can expend coins on ThiefNet for ultimately insignificant and rarely used ability upgrades, spend treasure to fix up broken arcade machines, play table tennis or gaze at his collection of unlocked costumes. The latter do add a modicum of interest to some of the missions - and watching Sly clumping around in hugely over-sized Samurai armour is pretty adorable - and are often required to defeat the bosses at the end of each episode, but they’re finicky to select and unimaginative in use.

Meanwhile, each game world is packed to the rafters with more collectibles, from clue bottles strewn across the landscape to treasure troves you’ll have to hotfoot back to your hideout against the clock. The level design is variable, with the opening feudal Japan being a particularly poor example. Yes, it’s pretty, but cluttered and lacking in defined landmarks, making it difficult to discern exactly where mission objectives are located. Things pick up as the game progresses, with the Wild West and medieval England settings the standouts even if they are dripping in Saturday morning cartoon clichés, and the animation both in-engine and during cutscenes is of a uniformly high standard.

Indeed, it’s the collectibles that highlight the main problem with Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time: you don’t spend enough time just being Sly. The game’s best moments are when you indulge in the core stealth platforming of the franchise, leaping from interesting grab hold to quivering plant tendril, working out a path to that seemingly out-of-reach final bottle so you can unlock the level’s safe and make off with the contents. In those moments it’s hard not to wonder just what Sucker Punch could have brought to the table with a more open-world Sly game, implementing all that they learned from inFAMOUS.

But before you know it, the mission is over and you’re off to play as another, and far duller, character. The congested cast of Thieves in Time means that you never get to actually enjoy what the game does best.

Sly's own stealth platforming remains the most satisfying part

Whether the bite-sized missions are a consequence of the game’s dual-platform development for PS3 and PlayStation Vita is impossible to tell, but Sanzaru have done a fine job developing what is essentially, bar the odd remapped control, the same game on both. Cross Play could do with a bit of smoothing out - presently you have to go into a specific menu entry, upload a save file to the cloud and then download it again from there on your other device - but Sony deserve commendation for the spirit of Cross Buy. When you put the game into your PS3 drive, a separate “Disc Bonuses” icon appears, which takes you to the PSN Store and adds a Vita version to your account for free.

There’s fun, then, to be had with Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, especially for those familiar with the original series, but in following a “see what sticks” approach to adding content rather than focusing on exploring and updating the franchise’s core mechanics, Sanzaru have ended up with a game that’s caught somewhere between the past and present and, no matter the nostalgia, that isn’t quite good enough in 2013.

Top Game Moment: Any time the game simply lets you explore the rooftops and dodge the patrols as Sly Cooper himself.