A Blast From the Past
The original Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus is one of my earliest memories on the PS2, though it released two years into the system’s life cycle. I remember that, lumped together during the course of about a half-year or so, Sly Cooper along with Ratchet and Clank and Jak and Daxter pretty much took up most of my gaming time. They all had a somewhat similar look and gameplay style, with stylized animation and 3-D platforming, and each featured a team of memorable characters which have all gone on to become industry stalwarts in their own right. That, and they were fun, funny, and kid-friendly. What was not to like?
Fast-forward to 2014, when for the first time in over a decade I sat down with a new Sly Cooper title, having skipped over both of the original’s sequels. And to be honest, I was left thoroughly unimpressed by my early hours with Thieves in Time.
Thieves in Time opens with the gang, who has more or less gone their separate ways, being reunited by Bentley to deal with a serious problem – he pages in the Thievius Raccoonus are turning blank, with the contents vanishing seemingly by magic! The solution to the mystery is soon revealed: someone is abducting Sly’s ancestors, members of the long-running Cooper lineage, who were responsible for writing the Thievius Raccoonus in the first place. With each historical ancestor that is lost, his contribution to the book also becomes lost to time. To rescue his family and reclaim their legendary place in criminal history, Sly and his pals set out on a time-traveling adventure spanning five different historical eras, from the ancient ice age to medieval England.
Each time period (of which there are five in total) consists of an open-world hub, which grants Sly and his gang access to that area’s individual platforming levels, but also acts as a level in and of itself in that it’s filled with traps and enemies, and contains collectibles and hidden secrets. Levels are divided up between Sly, Bentley, and “The Murray”, as well as Sly’s ancestors (once each one is rescued in his particular time period). There’s plenty of variety as well, as Bentley’s missions frequently involve some techy computer hacking, which is done via several different arcade mini-games. Remote-controlled car segments, unlockable arcade machines, costumes with special moves and properties, and some friendly table tennis competitions add to the overall variety. I think for my first several hours of gameplay, no two sections ever played alike. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that, early on, the game definitely felt a bit like a mini-game collection, what with all these styles randomly mashed together.
And maybe this is precisely why the first two worlds never made me feel at home – it was just too much gameplay with an apparent identity-crisis to ever give me a good “feel” for what Thieves in Time was actually meant to be – a 3D platformer, plain and simple. But ambitious gameplay variety aside, once I had progressed to World 3 (Prehistoric Times), things started falling into place much more, and from then on the ride smooth and enjoyable. Though in hindsight that may be too much of a required time investment before finally seeing some fun dividends, and, had I purchased this copy as opposed to it being a free game, I would have been quite disappointed early on.
The game did offer some surprising longevity. The story is relatively lengthy, and would take a good chunk of time if played straight through without side tracking and distractions. But it’s precisely these distractions that add an extra layer of challenge to the title. Each hub world is littered with green bottles (a holdover from the original Sly Cooper) that must be collected to assemble the combination to open that world’s safe, which contains an optional upgrade for Sly. Also scattered around are treasures which must be collected and returned to the gang’s hideout within a certain time limit, and hidden Sly masks to collect. Finding most of these items isn’t too difficult, but after you’ve exhausted the obvious, hidden-in-plain-sight ones, the remainder becomes very challenging. Making matters worse is the fact that you’ll need costumes not accessible ’til later in the game to reach some of them, and several of each world’s Sly masks are actually hidden within the levels themselves, as opposed to the hub world. This means plenty of backtracking and replaying of levels, which becomes old very fast. Missed clue bottles can eventually be located by obtaining an upgrade that tracks them on your radar and leads you straight to them, but you’ll always be on your own with the treasures and Sly masks.
I’m glad I stuck it out through the first two-fifths of Thieves in Time, as there is some genuinely enjoyable platform gaming to be had later on. And, completionist that I am, I spent quite a bit of time trying to find everything and get a 100% completion rating. Sadly, my patience wore out before ever reaching that point, and I refuse to look online for a guide that’ll lead me straight to ’em! In the end, I’ve amassed a satisfyingly large chunk of stuff, and can sleep soundly at night after all. Even though I wasn’t able to connect the story threads, having skipped the previous two entries, but it wasn’t all that necessary after all in order to enjoy this game for what it was. This time, I may even come back for the sequel!