Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time - Time Is On Sly's Side

It's been about 8 years since the last one, but finally, after all this time, a brand new entry in the Sly Cooper franchise has been released. To celebrate this, this blog has gone over as many of the entries in what has been referred to as Sony's "platforming trio" (Sly Cooper, Jak and Daxter, Ratchet & Clank up to All 4 One) as possible before the release of this game. However, it should be noted that, rather than Sly creator Sucker Punch Productions (who seems to be busy with their Infamous IP), it is developer Sanzaru Games, the ones who ported the original Sly trilogy to PS3, that is responsible for this game, as they are actually fans of the Sly Cooper franchise. Though the game was theoretically made by fans, it's clear that Sanzaru had a real passion for the franchise, said passion helping to keep this game feeling like a true and welcome entry in the series.

An undisclosed amount of time has passed since the end of Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves, Sly Cooper himself having faked amnesia so he could be closer to Inspector Carmelita Fox. Bentley has been conducting scientific research with his girlfriend Penelope; one day, Penelope mysteriously disappears, along with, as Bentley discovers, the information written in the Thievius Raccoonus, the book belonging to the Cooper Clan. As generations of Cooper history literally vanish from the book, Bentley shows this to Sly and Murray, along with his advances in the field of time travel. With the Cooper Gang's van fitted with Bentley's time machine, they perform a museum heist so they can get the machine working (in order to travel through time, you need an object from the same era) and save Cooper history from being permanently extinguished.

The plot of Thieves in Time is, I must say, pretty well executed. It does its job by jumping off from the end of Sly 3, taking its premise from Bentley telling the player at the end that he has been working on a time machine while also expanding upon Sly's false amnesia. There is also some focus on the relationship between Sly and Carmelita, exploring on their feelings for one another as they see it from each other's perspectives. The main plot is rather interesting, as the Cooper Gang has to rescue Cooper history as they face equally interesting adversaries along the way. There's plenty of intriguing plot twists to keep the story interesting, though one in particular doesn't feel entirely justified despite its shock value. That aside, it feels very much like a real Sly Cooper plot and a true expansion on the third game's ending.

The Cooper Gang (from left): Sly, Murray, and Bentley.

The story of the game is told through cut scenes of course, both animated with in-game graphics and through special animations. The animated cut scenes are narrated much like the previous games, but what sets them apart from the others is that they are in full motion, rather than like a motion comic, and the animation is simply amazing. The fluid animation helps the characters seem more alive, and the variety of expression helps create some interesting scenes while the full motion enables easier insertion of humor. A few of these scenes also use a variety of art styles to help illustrate a character's backstory, which helps them feel more unique. (A particular cut scene I like is the one describing a boss named The Grizz, where as Sly is explaining his origins, The Grizz only stands in one spot while everything changes around him accordingly.) This effort, combined with the promotional short released prior to the game, make Sly 4 the closest you will ever get to a full-fledged Sly Cooper animated series, which this franchise seems like it would be able to pull off in reality. Fortunately, as with previous games, you can go back and watch earlier cut scenes in all their animated glory.

If you've played Sly Cooper before, you should be able to recognize this scene.

On that note, the in-game graphics are equally spectacular, updating the designs of each character while still retaining the cartoonish elements in a way that looks visually appealing. Character designs such as Murray's are more closely modeled after their real-world counterparts, though they are thankfully still stylized to fit more in line with a Sly Cooper game. There is a lot more detail to be found here, mainly due to the game being designed for HD, especially when it comes to the more furry characters such as Sly and his ancestors, among others like Carmelita and another boss named El Jefe. The characters also move very fluidly and characters with long tails have equally fluid and realistic tail animations, which is something I (admittedly) have always enjoyed about the Sly cooper series' idle animations.

Then there is the voice acting. Aside from the returning actors of the main trio (Sly, Bentley, and Murray), the game also has the talents of Steve Blum and Nolan North, voicing Sly's ancestor Rioichi Cooper and Sly's enemy El Jefe respectively. These voice actors, along with the likes of Yuri Lowenthal and Grey DeLisle and many others, help make each performance worthwhile and give each character their unique personality. Though it's been years since the returning cast has been involved with Sly Cooper, save for the recent PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, their performances in this game prove that they've still got it in them. Grey DeLisle's performance as Inspector Carmelita Fox works really well for the character, though how any of her other voices compare is up to you, much like another video game character who can't seem to keep his voice straight.

Gameplay is similar to previous entries in the series, making it familiar for returning players, but with some new twists. First off is that the Cooper ancestors each have their own unique abilities in addition to Sly's own, such as Rioichi Cooper having an extended version of the Ninja Spire Jump and Tennessee "Kid" Cooper being able to shoot multiple targets at once with the gun in his cane (with one in particular showing a nice bit of attention to detail regarding his abilities). The ancestors also each have their own stealth take-down animations and special attacks, making each one feel different enough to not feel like a rehash of Sly's move set. There's also some challenge to be found in the boss fights (except for the last one, since it's just a series of Quick-Time Events), each one bringing something new to the table in such a way as to make them memorable (for example, The Grizz's boss fight involves ice-skating of all things).

Sly facing off against El Jefe.

Another addition to the game is a set of costumes Sly can wear, each of which also give him special abilities (in some cases in exchange for being unable to use his regular thieving moves) rather than just providing a disguise for sneaking around in. For instance, a set of Japanese armor allows Sly to be fireproof and reflect fireballs while an archery costume allows Sly to interact with a bucket of arrows to fire at a distant target, creating a tightrope to walk on. These costumes can be switched out through a special menu by holding down a button, then selecting your outfit while holding the button (otherwise it defaults to the last one you used). Some areas require multiple costumes, while others are made to show off what your new clothes can do, and the game does what it can to make sure you use every costume. Carmelita and Bentley have similar menus for their weapons, but you'll probably be less likely to explore those options, as I was.

There's also some points where you have to complete a rhythm-based mini game, much like in Sly 3, only this time you must hit them in time as they pass by on the bottom of the screen, similarly to Guitar Hero (or Secret Agent Clank if its rhythm sections had any actual semblance of a beat). There's also one near the end that provides a small workout as it requires you to shake your controller, though I won't tell you the context here.

Bentley once again does his hacking thing in this game, but with some improvements. The twin-stick hacking you've come to expect is there, but with some major graphical improvements that make it gorgeous to look at. Thanks to the graphical power of the PS3, there's plenty of detail to behold here, the end result being something that wouldn't feel out of place in Tron. There's also some variety in the hacking this time around, with a side-scroller of sorts where Bentley's avatar looks like a Ninja Turtle with guns (though not exactly), and one where you use the SIXAXIS controls to move a ball of energy through a pinball-like set-up with a timer and pitfalls. This level of variety in the hacking helps the game feel like a fresh installment and not a simple rehash of Sucker Punch's existing work on the franchise. Of course ThiefNet is back in full swing, taking its more convenient money-making system from Sly 3, though I should point out that you will never be short on coins in this game, since they are rather easy to come by (though I'm not complaining, since it alleviates excessive grinding).

There's also plenty of collectibles scattered around each level, which are actually required to unlock more things in the game. Collecting hidden treasures scattered throughout each (hub) map unlocks arcade cabinets in each hideout, while collecting hidden masks in every area unlocks hidden items, such as character and Para-Glider skins (I have yet to collect all of them). Clue Bottles also make a return in this game, which provides a perfect incentive to explore every new territory to unlock a safe containing a useful item, a few of which make call backs to the first Sly game. But if collecting items tires you out, you can always play a round of virtual ping pong with Bentley back at the hideout.

For when repairing the time-space continuum gets boring.

Finding these treasures is made infinitely easier thanks to the power of the PlayStation Vita, which you can get a free copy of this game for if you purchase the PS3 version via Cross-Buy. In the PS3 version, if you turn the AR Server on, then you can activate the AR Treasures feature in the Vita version of the game to scan your TV screen for hidden treasures and Sly masks in applicable areas. If you tap the Vita screen while in this mode, a helpful cross hair will show up on the TV in the PS3 version to help you find each item. However, this feature is best implemented when you have a second player, since using it by yourself is rather awkward and unwieldy. With another person at the controls, it makes finding collectibles infinitely easier.

This game also supports Cross-Play, where you can Cross-Save your data from one version onto a cloud server and then continue playing on the other. This is a very useful feature, since I was able to keep playing when the PS3 was being used or I was on the move (I even transferred my save to another PS3, using my Vita as a sort of vessel to transfer data between consoles). Gameplay is very similar to the PS3 version of Sly 4, with clever use of touch screen and touch pad controls to make up for the lack of shoulder buttons, while also taking advantage of the Vita's gyroscope for certain tasks, mostly anything that would normally involve the SIXAXIS. Of course, everything in this version is sort of a visual downgrade of its bigger sibling, but the experience is nonetheless similar to what you can find on the PS3 version and is perfect for when you want to continue playing outside of your own home.

As I was playing this game after beating the campaign, I gained knowledge that there is a secret ending to the game, which is obtained by getting the Platinum trophy and then (re)watching the credits. I have yet to complete all the objectives necessary to see this ending for myself and, while a YouTube upload is tempting to watch, I would much rather earn this ending on my own time so I feel more satisfied with all my hard work.

In short, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is an excellent return to the Sly Cooper franchise after such a lengthy absence. Sanzaru really did their homework on this one, pulling out all the stops to make sure you get the full Sly cooper experience and more. While the opening does try to explain the happenings of the series to newcomers (for those who choose the option at the beginning to watch it), I would actually recommend playing the original Sly trilogy first, if only for the sake of the plot and to gain a better understanding of Sly's world and history. For both new and existing fans of the series, I would tell you to get both versions of this installment, if only because both versions actually go hand-in-hand with each other. Sanzaru clearly knew what they were doing when they were allowed to to make their own Sly Cooper game, and I can't wait to play Sly 5 when it comes out (hopefully we won't have to wait 8 years for that one).

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