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Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time saves this capable raccoon from becoming history (review)

Sanzaru Games, taking over for original developer Sucker Punch Productions, rescued the burgling raccoon Sly Cooper from obscurity when it released an HD collection in 2010. Now, after almost a decade, we have a new entry in the stealth-platforming series. Sanzaru has learned well from its experience remastering the first three games, and Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time (out today as a cross-play title for PlayStation 3 and PS Vita) is a big cause for celebration.

What you’ll like

Classic sneaking and stealing

Despite the near eight-year gap, fans will immediately recognize familiar traits and ease into the gameplay no matter where the gang’s time machine takes them. Like before, Sly evades yellow searchlights that alert guards, uses his Thief Sense to tiptoe around corners or spring to wherever he sees blue sparkles, and hunts for items like the good old clue bottles. It’s partly a collect-a-thon — completely optional and perfect for those who want to relive the golden days of platforming and explore a world in search of shiny baubles.

Aside from the bouncing clue bottles (find 30 to break the safe in each hub area), players can track down treasures (and race them back to the hideout to claim them) and Sly masks (which unlock extras, like design alterations to Sly’s paraglider or outfit). They can also open ThiefNet, the store accessible from the hideout, to redeem coins for more powerful attacks and moves.

Even the narrative style is the same, with a single character talking over animated cutscenes, which are a real highlight — cartoony, charming, and funny to watch. Sanzaru unloaded a lot of detail into these beautiful cel-shaded worlds, and even the hideout and the animals (friendly and hostile) that populate these locales change alongside the theme (from feudal Japan to ancient Arabia). The developer did its homework; this is a true and polished sequel.

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time - El Jefe

More depth than a motley crew needs

Thieves in Time delivers a surprising amount of content, too. It takes around 20 hours to finish the campaign and even longer to achieve full completion. As the Cooper gang jumps through time, chasing after the villain who’s targeting Sly’s quirky ancestors, the player controls a well-rounded cast of characters: the old trio, including the computer-savvy turtle Bentley and the heavy-weight fighter Murray; the feisty Inspector Carmelita Fox, who’s Sly’s girlfriend (or possibly ex-girlfriend); and of course, the Coopers from each of the five eras you visit.

The controls give you a lot of freedom to fiddle around as you please — try spinning Bentley around in his wheelchair and just feel the snap-back of those tires — and although each character can learn a ton of techniques, many of them build on existing ones. They’re also mapped similarly between characters, so you can pick them up more easily. For example, holding Triangle charges up a special move that’s unique to each team member while pressing Triangle and Square in quick succession unleashes a one-hit-kill stealth attack for any Cooper. ThiefNet purchases expand on Bentley’s bomb abilities and dart types, which you can access from the gadget grid (by holding L2), or upgrade Murray’s punches.

The grid also acts a wardrobe for Sly. Using it, he can don any of the costumes he acquires as souvenirs while skipping around various time periods. Each comes with a specialized set of moves. The Samurai outfit, for example, enables Sly to walk through fire unharmed and reflect fireballs with a golden shield.

Each Cooper possesses a signature technique that grants you access to specific areas or lets you bypass certain obstacles. “Tennessee Kid” Cooper from the old West can use his Crackshot to fire at multiple targets, and the ninja Rioichi can leap to distant blue-sparkle points.

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time - Rioichi Cooper

Some help from the team

You can’t say that Thieves in Time doesn’t take pains to guide players through levels. The radar marks your current location and that of your objective, but clicking the left stick brings up an arrow beneath the character that points him in the precise direction he needs to go. Enemies appear as red dots on the radar too, and the character icon in the upper left corner of the screen (which displays health) blinks red when one’s nearby or flashes red and blue when a guard has spotted you. So no matter what the task or how far you’ve wandered, the game gets you back on track. Even the environment contains visual clues that steer you along; sometimes arrows are even visible on the walls or floors. It’s a bit of overkill, but it works.

Thieves in Time’s real asset is how well it brings the gang together to pull off heists. Some missions require multiple characters to work together or handle certain parts of a job, and their joint efforts help the team take down the bad guys (who are awesome, by the way, with the exception of a few annoying boss personalities).

It’s surprising, but much of the experience consists of minigames, and the developer manages to implement them without frustrating players. They’re appropriately short and never too taxing, and the sheer variety is impressive. Each one centers around a character and his strengths. You might cringe at the thought of Sixaxis tilt controls and computer hacking in other titles (I hate them), but each one is fresh and interesting — whether it’s a dance performance as Murray or a mech showdown between nerds.

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time - Bentley hack

What you won’t like

Still loading

These load times would embarrass dinosaurs, and they occur rather frequently. Get ready to take a lot of coffee breaks while you wait for cutscenes and jobs to begin.

Help, please! … No, not like that!

Maybe it’s because I enjoyed playing as the different characters so much and because they’re so distinct from one another, but I wish Sanzaru balanced out their screen times a bit more. You play as Sly a lot and Bentley and Murray a good deal, but I wanted more practice with the other Coopers and Carmelita especially. Their missions are sprinkled nicely throughout the game, but there weren’t enough to satisfy me — especially after buying new moves for the foxy inspector.

On the other hand, I could have done without so much chattiness. I’m glad the voice actors provided so much dialogue as it makes the scenarios fresher, but Bentley, in particular, is a little too helpful. The know-it-all turtle doesn’t leave you much of a chance to figure things out on your own before butting in with a few words of advice. (That said, he’s one of my favorite characters. Unlike Sly, he has great one-liners. He’s just garrulous.)

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time - Thief costume

X, Up, Down, Square … what?

Thieves in Time features a full digital manual, which contains a thorough list of moves for the central characters. But this convenient feature isn’t accessible from the game itself, which renders it pointless when you need to look up a move in a pinch. The controls reference from the Options menu won’t do you much good unless Sly is your main concern; Bentley and Murray didn’t make the cut, which is unfortunate considering how many moves they have at their disposal.

Command prompts do pop up during play to remind you how to execute skills, but sometimes these hint boxes appear for no reason, and they temporarily block the radar when they do. It’s excessive and annoying, and you can’t turn off this part of the interface.

But one crucial aspect of the title’s cross-play capabilities puts PlayStation 3 owners at a big disadvantage. Aside from taking the game on the go, players can turn their PS Vita into an augmented-reality device — a viewfinder for locating the clue bottles, treasures, and Sly masks in each world. The binocucom (kind of like “binoculars,” but a little more technological) in the original Sly Cooper provided the same benefit, so it’s unfair that PS3 players can’t rely on some in-game (but less exciting) equivalent for help without going out and buying a Vita (or hitting up GameFAQs).

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time - Murray

A fizzle of a finale

Although some shine more than others, the boss fights in Thieves in Time are challenging and cool. But the last showdown is little more than a string of quick-time events — little effort required. It’s anticlimactic compared to all the work you put in previously. Even minor encounters, like Carmelita’s battle with a three-headed mechanical dragon, worked up more of a sweat.

Conclusion

Sly Cooper: Thieves is Time is a fantastic addition to the series and a great entry point for newcomers. Most of my gripes are minor, but the aggressive load times present the biggest detriment to the game, and the need for a PS Vita might irritate anyone who wants to collect everything these time periods have to offer. The rest is just a few hiccups in history, but they shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the latest chapter in the Cooper story.

Score: 89/100

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time was released for the PlayStation 3 and PS Vita on February 5, 2013. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a PS3 copy of the game for the purpose of this review.


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