By Leo Stevenson
I missed out on Sly Cooper the first time around and only managed to play The Thievius Raccoonus and Band of Thieves when the HD collection was released... and that's where I stopped.
For all their charm, humour and the enjoyment to be had sneaking and stealing as Sly and the gang, I had no desire to play the series' third game, Honour Among Thieves. The reason was simple: Sly Cooper always had a tendency to overstay his welcome. The first two games dragged on so much and became frustrating to play. They seemed to employ every trick in the book to artificially extend their play time.
Now, after completing Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, I am tempted to go back and give Sly 3 another look. Thankfully, the newest entry in the series shares none of the issues of the first two titles.
It's been several years since Sly and the gang have graced us with their presence. In the interim, original developer Sucker Punch has moved onto inFAMOUS, and newbies Sanzaru Games have taken the reins for the franchise's fourth release. Sanzaru are no stranger to Sly though, having worked on the HD collection; their love for the characters and the wacky Saturday morning cartoon world they inhabit is all too apparent. Right off the bat the game looks, sounds and feels like a Sly Cooper game -- albeit with the added improvements produced by the PS3's extra grunt -- and will be recognisable as such to any fan.
The original voice cast -- those handling Sly, Bentley and Murray -- all make a return and deliver (mostly) energetic, dynamic and engaging performances. The remainder of the voice actors do an equally impressive job for the most part, with only a few minor characters suffering from the dreaded bad performance. The music is also spot on and really drives the upbeat, jaunty cartoon feel of the game and its predecessors home.
Invoking a sense of the previous games and bringing to life a Saturday morning cartoon is what the game does best. The hallmarks of the series return -- the context sensitive action button, the automatic sneaking when behind an enemy, pickpocketing and minigames -- and while nothing breaks new ground nor redefines the core gameplay, Thieves in Time shouldn't be dismissed as a result. It could be said that Sanzaru games have played it safe with this release, but for the first Sly game in seven years, I think it was a wise decision. Fans of the series will be flooded with memories and they'll be hit by wave after wave of nostalgia as they play, while those new to the series will be able to pick it up with ease. Maybe in Sly Cooper 5 we'll see something radically new, but for now, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
The story is where this game truly trumps the previous games, with Sly 4 truly achieving the feeling of a real cartoon while older titles contained very "video-gamey" narratives. Following from the events of Sly 3, Sly is still faking amnesia so he can be with Carmelita Fox and has officially retired from the thieving game. That is until the pages of the Thievius Racconus start vanishing. Somebody is erasing the Cooper Clan from history, so it's up to Sly, Bentley and Murray to travel through time and save them.
Using Murray's van as a time machine, the gang head to all the most cliché time travel locations -- Feudal Japan, The Old West, Medieval England, The Ice Age and Ancient Arabia -- yet it never feels as such due to the great cast of characters, fun dialogue and engaging story. It's a real treat to tool around in Japan with the ninjas at one moment, then head to the Old West the next and take part in a shooting contest.
Within each of the five eras you'll come across one of Sly's ancestors, each becoming a new playable character with unique special abilities. Rioichi Cooper can leap from point to point, covering a greater distance much more quickly than Sly, Tennessee 'Kid' Cooper makes use of his special "cane-gun" to take out enemies from afar and "Bob" Cooper (the caveman raccoon) can climb sheer ice walls. Many of the environmental puzzles found in each level make use of these special abilities meaning you'll spend a fair amount of time with each of the Cooper ancestors. Of course you'll also spend time with Sly, Bentley, Murray and even Carmelita who's now been promoted to fully playable character.
Additionally, there are five costumes to make use of while playing as Sly that grant a range of special abilities. The archery disguise, from Medieval England, allows Sly to fire rope arrows between platforms, creating paths to previously unreachable areas. The Samurai disguise tricks guards into thinking Sly is one of their own and also renders him fireproof. Aside from being used in the missions, these disguises are relied upon heavily when going back and collecting all the hidden treasure, bottles and Sly masks scattered throughout each level.
With so much to do and so many characters to play as, it initially feels as though the titular raccoon and his two sidekicks are benched for large portions of the game. The ancestors tend to take on a starring role in their respective timelines, with Sly playing more of a supporting role. By the end of the game, balance is mostly restored with Sly taking up more of the play time. Quirky control issues found in each of the previous games are also found in Sly 4. On occasion I would hit the Circle button to attach Sly to a pole, but would find him standing on a ledge or would attempt to jump to the next vantage point only to fall and land on a platform far away from where I was intending. This is due to the concentration of interactive elements in each level.
While it's commendable that so much of the world is climbable, it frustrates to no end when the character on screen won't go where you want. It doesn't happen too frequently to be a major issue, but each time it does it grates a little harder. Similarly, the camera is mostly perfectly functional, but will sometimes appear to get bored and wander off, leaving you staring at the surrounding scenery while you wrestle the viewpoint back onto the action. Luckily, the levels are gorgeously rendered and a pleasure to behold. Although that doesn't help when you fail a mission or die because the camera got distracted by something shiny.
Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time doesn't re-invent the wheel, and it doesn't need to. It's a fun, witty, entertaining romp through time that will please the littlies, the parents and everyone in between. Best of all it supports Sony's Cross-Buy initiative, meaning that if you purchase a PS3 copy, you'll receive the PS Vita copy free of charge. Thanks to a nifty cloud saving option, you're able to continue your adventure on the move. So, if you enjoy cartoons, anthropomorphic animals that crack wise, time travel and platformers then Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time was essentially made for you. If not, give it a go anyway, I bet you'll crack a smile within the first five minutes.