Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time gang

Rioichi Cooper couldn’t believe his eyes. After breaking free from prison, recovering his precious cutlery, and disabling an elaborate security system that didn’t belong at all in 17th century feudal Japan, the nimble ninja and premier sushi chef thought his troubles were over. But he still had one more trial to endure.

Strutting to the stage in front of him was a large pink hippopotamus dressed in geisha garb, playfully seducing the throng of bipedal boars who guarded the building. Sly Cooper’s slack-jawed ancestor quietly made his escape during the ruse, but not before getting an eyeful of Murray’s newly adapted … skills.

Heists are once again a major focus in Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, Sanzaru Games’ first attempt at bringing back the raccoon thief and his friends from a seven-year absence. Exclusively coming to the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita handheld on Feb. 5, the fourth entry in the stealth platforming series has Sly, Bentley the turtle (the team’s gadget guru), and Murray the hippo (the muscle) traveling back through time to figure out why the pages describing Sly’s ancestors in the “Thievius Raccoonus” book are disappearing. The first stop, and the only one available in an early version of the game I played, is 1605 A.D. Japan.

A raccoon, a turtle, and a hippo walk into a time machine…

Like in previous games, you’ll have to use the different skill sets of each character to accomplish certain tasks. In Japan, Sly, Bentley, Murray, and — once you rescue him — Rioichi all have specific jobs to do. Sly can climb buildings and rooftops with ease using his signature cane. Murray can belly flop, toss, and pummel enemies thanks to the power of his hulking weight. Bentley can hack computers and lob small bombs from the comfort of his rocket-powered wheelchair. And Rioichi’s skills are similar to Sly’s, but with the added bonus of a quick dash that propels him across short distances.

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time geisha house

You manage these jobs (and can choose to replay them) via the trio’s cavernous hideout, where you can also play a few minigames and upgrade the gang’s abilities using the coins you collect. It’s a convenient hub to have in Rioichi’s hometown of winding streets, houses, and waterfalls — you’ll want to explore every pixel of it to find the plethora of hidden treasures and secrets. You’re free to move around it as much as you want, as character-specific jobs don’t begin until you approach the special blue icons found by using either your compass or your map.

It’s only by accepting these jobs that you’ll visit the interior locations: among them was a sushi restaurant, a fishing pond, and a geisha house. Each of them were pretty large in their own right, with different obstacles and enemies to overcome. A few places do overlap with some jobs and it can get a little tiring from seeing the same areas again and again. But for the most part, switching between characters offered a fresh perspective when exploring the multiple layers of Japan.

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time museum

Reuniting with old friends

On the PlayStation 2, Sly Cooper (as created by Sucker Punch Productions) was a part of the platforming trifecta anchored by fellow PS2 exclusives Jak and Daxter (developed by Naughty Dog) and Ratchet & Clank (from Insomniac Games). I haven’t played the series in years, but it just felt really comforting to slip back into Sly’s world for a few hours to hear his wise cracking dialogue, Bentley’s long scientific explanations, or seeing Murray’s outlandish displays of machismo. From what I can tell, Sanzaru does a great job of retaining the tongue-in-cheek humor that helped defined these characters in the first place

Sneaking, climbing, and pickpocketing your foes in a vibrant, cartoon-like world while avoiding traps still feels solid seven years later. But I almost prefer playing it on the Vita: if you buy the PS3 version of Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, you’ll get a download code of the Vita edition for free. It’s not as sharp-looking as what you’ll see on the console, but aside from the controls, everything looks and feels identical. You can also continue your progress from one version to the other using the cross-save feature.

Though it’s a direct continuation of Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves, a stylishly animated intro brings you up to speed in just a few minutes before letting you loose, with other 2D cutscenes illustrating major events in the game. I’m not sure if the remaining levels will be able to top Murray’s impromptu dance on stage, but I look forward to finding out.