The original Sly Cooper trilogy was one of the best franchises on the Playstation 2. Set in a world populated by anthropomorphic animals, the series followed the titular Sly Cooper, a raccoon who hails from a long line of master thieves that specialize in stealing only from criminals, since there is no honor, challenge, or fun in robbing ordinary people . With clever writing, engaging characters, impressive art design, and gameplay focused on platforming with simple stealth and action, they became popular with players across a wide age range. The final entry in the original series, Honor Among Thieves, was released in 2005, ending with a teaser that hinted at an upcoming fourth installment. The wait was a long one, however, as developer Sucker Punch moved on to develop the InFamous games, occasionally hinting that a fourth Sly Cooper title would be coming, but never offering a definite release date. During 2011’s E3 convention, the next entry in the franchise, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, was officially announced for the Playstation 3 and Vita. It was also revealed that development duties had been transferred to Sanzaru Games, the company that had made the HD collection of the original trilogy for the Playstation 3. I will admit that I, like others, was hesitant about whether or not the new developer would be able to effectively capture the charm Sucker Punch had put into their titles, but after playing it, I can say that they did a stellar job, creating another great installment to one of my favorite series.

Several years after the events of Honor Among Thieves, Sly Cooper is enjoying life as reformed thief, having faked memory loss of his criminal past to spend time with his love interest and former nemesis, Interpol inspector Carmelita Fox. But his new life is boring him; he misses the challenge of pulling heists, the appeal of putting criminals in their place. He needs to pull another job. Thankfully the opportunity to re-live past glory presents itself when his colleage Bentley the Turtle comes to visit, though this isn’t a pleasant social call. Two major problems have emerged. First, Bentley’s colleague/girlfriend Penelope the mouse has mysteriously disappeared. Secondly, entries in the Thievius Raccoonus, the tome compiled by the Cooper Clan over the centuries containing all their thieving secrets, is gradually having its entries disappear. Suspecting that something is happening to Sly’s ancestors, Bentley recommends using his newly developed time machine to travel to the past in order to unravel the mystery. Heading to various points in the past, the Cooper gang finds that several of Sly’s forefathers are in great danger, their lives and freedom threatened by criminals from the present day. Apparently Bentley isn’t the only one with access to time travel technology. It’s up to Sly and his friends to uncover the conspiracy threatening his lineage and restore the Cooper clan to their position as the greatest thieves in history.

Thieves in Time’s central premise is an interesting twist on the plot from the first game. When the series began, Sly was attempting to recover the stolen sections of the Thievius Raccoonus from a rival criminal syndicate. In his latest outing, he has to aid his ancestors to ensure that the book can be written. Given how each previous game has focused on Sly’s efforts to preserve or live up to his family heritage (reclaiming the Thievius Raccoonus, demolishing Clockwerk, the murderious mechanical owl who killed his parents, unlocking the Cooper family vault), and how often his ancestors were mentioned in previous titles, the chance to actually interact with and play as the earlier members of the Cooper clan greatly expands upon the concepts introduced in the original trilogy. The use of time travel is handled well, and the historical settings visited provide a new level of interest to the game’s world. Unfortunately, it does feel a bit lacking. Despite having heard of at least a dozen prominent Coopers in the earlier games, you only encounter five during the course of this game, one of whom was never previously mentioned. Considering the eight year gap between the third and fourth entries, I was hoping that we would’ve gotten a chance to see more worlds than what were offered, like sailing the high seas with the pirate queen Henriette “One-Eye” Cooper, or flying over a war-torn steampunk Europe with the technological genius Otto van Cooper, or even visiting ancient Egypt to encounter the (now-retconned) first member of the Cooper lineage, Slytunkhamen. It’s a bit disappointing, but the worlds that you can visit are still presented well, each with their own appealing atmosphere.

The writing for the game remains spot-on. Sanzaru’s team knew how to effectively replicate, and in some cases enhance, the narrative structure Sucker Punch pioneered. There is plenty of humor with clever banter between characters, exaggerated comedic personalities, and some pop culture references that range from subtle (moments in the time travel scenes paying homage to Back to the Future and Doctor Who) to the not-so subtle (Bentley remarking that he hasn’t been in the sewers since he was a teenager, the “Why did it have to be snakes?” line from Raiders of the Lost Ark is dropped in the Arabian level.) Characterization is also strong, with the core cast retaining their main personalities: Sly is still a suave, cocky, light-hearted thief, Bentley a techno-babble spouting genius, Murray an overly-enthusiastic powerhouse with self-esteem issues, and Carmelita a determined, no-nonsense upholder of justice. They aren’t completely static, however, as there are several moments that demonstrate strong character growth, most notably in the relationship between Sly and Carmelita, and Bentley becoming a more confident, courageous person. The only personality change that doesn’t fit in is Penelope’s, whose motives and behavior make a drastic shift from how she was established in the past without any clear explanation as to why she’s changed. I was also a little upset that Dimitri Lousteau, the slang-spouting lounge lizard, was relegated just to cutscenes with no actual dialogue. He was always one of my favorite characters, so cutting him and his comedic presence out of the game was a bit of a letdown.

The newly introduced characters, for the most part, were also given rich personalities. As expected, Sly’s ancestors are all a group of eccentric but likable criminals. The most entertaining of these raccoon rogues are the fast-talking, colloquialism-slinging Wild West outlaw Tennessee “Kid” Cooper, the noble yet overzealous knight Sir Galleth Cooper, and the cantankerous, world-weary Arabian thief Salim al-Kupar. They each bring their own unique abilities to gameplay, as well as their own dynamics with the rest of the Cooper gang, creating several amusing moments of interplay. The majority of the villains are also well-developed, notably the egotistical gold-smuggling armadillo Toothpick, the classical-music obsessed elephant diva Miss Decibel, and the conniving Cyrille le Paradox, a skunk who presents himself as a prominent member of the art world while making a fortune selling stolen antiquities on the black market. Le Paradox is one of the more interesting rogues as his vendetta against the Cooper family is gradually revealed; while it only fully comes to light near the end of the game, it does make sense, and isn’t as much of a swerve as Penelope’s sudden change. There is a bit of a slow start, though, since the first Cooper ancestor and criminal introduced in medieval Japan aren’t very compelling: the ninja thief Rioichi Cooper comes off as a cliched martial arts expert spouting off poetic platitudes to show how wise he is, while the mercenary tiger El Jefe never gets much of a chance to demonstrate his supposed tactical expertise. It’s not the best way to start things off, but the cast significantly improves later.

Gameplay is mostly the same as the previous three titles, with a few alterations made in certain areas. I’m always looking for innovation in new titles, but the Sly Cooper series is a case where”if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” is a good adage to follow. Thieves in Time an action-platformer with simple stealth elements used for avoiding enemies. Stealth is encouraged in this title since enemies deal much greater damage, and with the lack of post-damage invulnerability, it’s best to stay hidden (that is, out of a guard’s flashlight beam or direct line of sight) or to run rather than risk getting swarmed by opponents. New abilities and gadgets can be purchased with money acquired through pickpocketing or obtaining valuables, though most of them are unnecessary. Only a few crucial items are necessary for successful completion of the game (the paraglider, sleep darts, stealth kill techniques, rapid recharge for special abilities) while the rest are rarely utilized, the only reason to purchase them being to obtain a trophy for completion’s sake. Another returning element are clue bottles scattered throughout a level that will provide an new special technique when they’re all obtained, and valuables that must be returned to the hideout before a time limit runs out. There’s also a new scavenger hunt involving masks that are hidden around the overworlds and in select missions. These are optional side-quests that, while not necessary for completing the main storyline, provide an extra level of challenge and do unlock some impressive bonuses for completionists. It helps that missions can be replayed to search for any masks that were missed during the first playthrough. The game’s cross-save function with the PlayStation Vita allows for an augmented reality radar that can be used to locate these collectibles, but in my opinion this takes away the fun of the challenge.

While most of the core gameplay remains the same, Sanzaru made a few changes that help elevate the title. First are the mini-games; Sly 3 suffered from an excess of mini-games and, for lack of a better word, gimmick gameplay modes that felt out of place, only shoehorned in to give a character the spotlight when it wasn’t necessary or provide some padding for a mission. While several of those mechanics return for Sly 4 (RC car and helicopter missions, Simon-like button tapping sequences, hacking mini-games), they’re given more variety and generally fit better, feeling like an integral part of the mission rather than a gimmick that was forced in. It helps keep the missions more streamlined and cuts down on excess. There are two pseudo-rhythm sequences that were put in for no other purpose than comedy and fanservice, though they certainly deliver in those areas. Similarly, the skills of the characters are all handled well. Each of the main Cooper gang members gets missions that emphasize their skills: Bentley gets missions that utilize his technical prowess (hacking, RC vehicles, various other gadgets), Murray is used when excess muscle is required, and Carmelita gets jobs that put her shooting talents to the test.

The Cooper ancestors are also handled well, each having his own unique ability that serves a crucial role in completing missions. There’s at least one job in each new time period designed to highlight their special techniques (such as Rioichi’s ability to leap long distances or Tennessee Kid’s rapid-fire sharpshooting), along with a few spots in the overworld where their skills can be used to reach new areas in order to obtain collectibles. Another interesting change is the use of costumes. Sly 3 introduced disguises in several areas that served no purpose other than walking around undetected by guards. Now the costumes will not only allow you to sneak around, but also come with special abilities that can be used to solve puzzles and reach new areas to find collectables. The most impressive technique I found was the Arabian thief’s outfit which grants the ability to slow down time; combined with the art design of the Arabian level and the intense platforming, it creates a gameplay experience reminiscent of the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time series. The outfit abilities play an integral role in the boss fights, all but two of which are impressive multi-part battles that provide an intense challenge. The costume powers, like those of the Cooper ancestors, can also be used to access new regions of the overworld.

The controls handle well with only a few issues. The camera is very responsive, while movement flows naturally with an easily adjustible speed; there’s no trouble in switching from a sprint to sneaking movements by relaxing the pressure on the directional pads. Platforming is aided with a blue sparkle that highlights certain spots such as ropes, spikes, or hooks, which any of the Coopers can grab on to with a simple button press. This works fine in most cases to allow for quick movement, but there are some times when the game will fail to register a connection command, such as when trying to jump from an angle onto a descending rope. Some objects, such as spires and branches, are elastic, propelling Sly off almost instantly after he lands and forcing you to find a new landing spot. This isn’t much of a problem except when they’re arranged in a spiral pattern, as it can be a little tricky to pinpoint the next spot you want to jump to in enough time. Several minigames are built around use of the six-axis motion controls, and they respond well to detecting directional movement and speed based on the angle you’re holding the controller.

Combat is a mixed bag – stealth takedowns and explosives are usually very effective in dispatching enemies, but direct combat can be problematic since, outside of boss fights, there’s very little feedback to indicate that you’ve delivered significant damage to enemies. Concerning stealth attacks, you need to be as close as possible to the enemy or else when you hit the attack button, you’ll trigger a charge attack instead. The use of bombs also carries a risk since if you’re too close to the explosive, even if you planted it, you can get damaged by the blast. The biggest problem the game has are incredibly lengthy loading times. It can sometimes take up to two minutes for a mission or overworld to load after selection, which is surprising considering that the game isn’t that graphically complex.

The animation is stellar, effectively utilizing light and a wide range of colors, and retaining the cel-shaded style of the previous titles while making small yet substantial improvements. In-game character models are smooth and well-detailed, lacking the blocky appearance seen in the first three games. Movement is fluid and natural, with only a rare instance of clipping. Lip movements perfectly sync up with dialogue in the computer-generated cutscenes. The animated cutscenes, while lacking dialogue, also have their own great animation style, resembling what Don Bluth might design if he worked on anime. These scenes are fully animated, rather than the cutscenes in the first three games which had limited movement on mostly static images, and again, the movement is smooth, not stilted. Level design possesses the same impressive artwork, each world given a distinct design to reflect the time period. The sunset desert of the wild west, the clash of stone, wood and forest in medieval England, the opulent palaces of ancient Arabia; every world is brimming with beautiful aesthetics.

I mentioned earlier that most of the characters retain their enjoyable, engaging personalities, which is helped by the stellar voice cast selected for the game. Kevin Miller, Matt Olsen and Chris Murphy resume their roles as the central members of the Cooper Gang (Sly, Bentley and Murray, respectively), continuing to give the characters the same energy they have for the past entries. Carmelita has been given a new voice with Grey DeLisle taking over the character, and I find she does the best job with the character since the first game. Grey gives the law-and-order obsessed fox a new energy in her tone, naturally switching between anger, resignation, or delight when the situation calls for it. It’s also nice to once again hear Carmelita speaking with a Spanish accent that sounds natural rather than forced. Other prominent voice actors who stand out in the game are Sam Riegel as the playful Tennesee “Kid” Cooper, Yuri Lowenthal giving Sir Galeth a chivalrous bombast, Brian George as the snarky Salim al-Kupar (again, it’s a nice touch that they chose an actor of Middle Eastern descent to voice an Arabian character), and Nolan North filling two roles as the gruff mercenary El Jefe and the conniving Le Paradox. The only roles that fall flat are Steve Blum’s performance as Rioichi, which sounds like he’s trying too hard to replicate Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi, and Fred Tatasciore as street-thug turned art thief The Grizz, tossing out tired gangsta slang and “yo yo yos”. They come off as cliched, stereotypical, and in the worst case, racially insensitive. They don’t drag down the overall quality of the game, but they stand out badly when compared to the stronger performances.

Sound design is exceptional. Acclaimed composer Peter McConnell, who had worked on the second and third Sly Cooper titles, returned to help the series retain its musical charm. The standard background music is the basic suave, jazzy theme heard in the previous games, sounding like what Henry Mancini would have composed if he had worked on a James Bond movie. Each of the new worlds boasts its own specialized soundtrack to reflect its theme: the old west has a musical arrangement similar to the scores Ennio Morricone wrote for Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name films, ancient Arabia makes proper use of Middle Eastern instruments, and prehistoric times are heavy on percussion to convey a primitive beat. The music is incredibly appealing to listen to, though at times it can interfere with hunting collectables; I noticed that the chirping birds in feudal Japan or the drumbeats of the prehistoric world can mask the clinking of clue bottles, making the scavenger hunts in those areas more difficult than necessary. Exaggerated sound effects for explosions, gunshots, and hitting enemies fit the cartoonish nature of the game.

Thieves in Time marks a great return for a classic franchise. It stumbles in a few areas, but the mistakes are forgivable considering this is a new developer’s first attempt at the series. Any minor problems concerning plot or technical aspects can be forgiven since the overall experience is thoroughly enjoyable. I wouldn’t say it’s the best game in the Sly Cooper series; that honor still belongs to Sly 2: Band of Thieves. But Thieves in Time is definitely a close second in terms of quality. Sanzaru did a fantastic job, and I hope they get the chance to do more with the IP in the future. There’s a good chance this is the start of another epic trilogy starring the Cooper gang.

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