The Sly Cooper franchise has always been about subverting expectations. It appeared in 2002 as a simple platformer with cel-shaded graphics and a kiddie design. There was substance beneath its style. The game never rested on its laurels, tweaking aspects of a tried-and-true genre to keep the experience fresh. Two sequels followed that same pattern, adding characters and mini-games that gave the franchise more variety than many more celebrated blockbusters.
Though the series was only novel up to a point. Sly Cooper was smart and fun but it never reinvented the wheel—most of the game involved jumping between platforms and collecting coins. When the third game, Honor Among Thieves, appeared in 2005, the formula was beginning to grow stale. Sucker Punch Productions, the developer, never announced a fourth title, and it seemed like the series would fade quietly into the night.
But after seven years, Sly Cooper has returned. Sony recently reminded audiences of the felonious raccoon in Move Heroes and PlayStation All Stars Battle Royale. Now, with developer Sanzaru taking the reins, he has his own brand new game. Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time fits the franchise mold perfectly, just slightly changing the dynamics to keep the well-worn action from getting too repetitive.
Taking place immediately after Honor Among Thieves, Thieves in Time finds Sly and his gang traveling to the past to rescue various members of the Cooper line, who are in peril from a conspiracy designed to erase them from history. Plots have never been the series’ strong suit, and here too the story is simply a skeleton erected to support Thieves in Time’s various set pieces. Ranging from feudal Japan to the prehistoric era, Thieves in Time’s five worlds are expansive and filled with plentiful nooks and crannies for secrets and treasure to hide. Half the fun of the game is ducking the main quest for an hour or two to swing around the levels looking for hidden objects, which open up mini-games or new abilities.
Since some of those treasures are quite hard to find, it’s nice that the game is easy on the eyes. Thieves in Time manages to smooth out some of the cel-shading from the earlier games without completely reinventing the look of the series, and the cut-scenes rival anything Disney’s come up with the in the past half-decade. The different worlds each have their own distinct flavor, and are wacky without being twee—the Wild West level especially has some great sight gags, such as its giant kegs of hooch littered everywhere. Much of Sly Cooper’s charm has always been its visuals, and Thieves in Time lives up to its predecessors.
Comparison to the past is an ongoing theme in Thieves in Time, which has Sly team up with his various ancestors to defeat a multi-era plot that would destroy the Cooper clan. Each world has a unique Cooper character that is essentially the same as Sly but with a few changes—Tennessee Kid Cooper has a gun and ranged attacks, Salim Al-Kupar can climb ropes quickly, etc.
Because the characters are so similar to Sly there’s no learning curve to using their abilities. But the titular raccoon is the only one with extensive powerups, making it preferable to play as him as much as possible. The other Coopers are interesting to play, for a time, but ultimately aren’t versatile enough to stand out against the original Cooper. Likewise, Thieves in Time never manages to escape the inevitable comparisons to the previous games.
It’s hard to say anything more complimentary of Thieves in Time than that it continues the caliber of the Sly Cooper franchise. It’s fun, but not outrageously enjoyable; funny, but not hilarious; inventive, but not truly groundbreaking. The various changes from the previous games make sure it’s different enough to stave off total redundancy, but Thieves in Time never manages to justify its existence. After a seven-year hiatus, the pressing question is: “What’s the reason for bringing Sly back?” Unfortunately, Thieves in Time doesn’t seem to have an answer.
Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time was developed by Sanzaru Games and published by Sony. Our review is based on the PlayStation 3 version. It is also available for the PlayStation Vita.
Noah Cruickshank is a freelance writer based in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter @noahcruickshank or read his blog.