What’s a thief’s most important talent? Well, the ability to stay undetected is clearly paramount, though developer Sanzaru – taking the reins from Sucker Punch after its HD renovation of Sly’s PS2 trilogy – doesn’t always subscribe to the notion that its band of burglars should stay out of sight. Combat is rarely advisable against Thieves In Time’s larger enemies, even with a fully upgraded skillset, but hippo powerhouse Murray is the sledgehammer to Sly’s scalpel, pummelling his way through bad guys in a cathartic release from sneaking.
Forced stealth does feature, but the fail conditions are consistent and clearly delineated. Make a noise near guards and you’re in trouble; stray into a moving light source, be it a guard’s lantern or a searchlight, and you’ll be caught. Otherwise, guards are predictably dumb, and the better for it. Staying off the ground is explicitly advised, with glowing surfaces producing a breadcrumb trail of light to show the path of least resistance, but you can often muddle through if you mistime a leap.
But the secret of Sanzaru’s success is that Thieves In Time prizes another of Sly’s assets: unpredictability. The game’s individual systems may be unremarkable in their own right, but such is their variety that you’re rarely given the chance to scrutinise them. You’re never doing one thing for very long, and if the developer recycles just about every new concept it introduces, there’s usually a new twist or fresh context that makes the familiar feel different. It’s been some time since we’ve seen a game that’s so generous with its ideas.
Not all are winners: the minigame interludes that use Vita’s gyro sensor or touchscreen are rarely exciting, and there even occasionally frustrating moments, such as the costume change icon, which doesn’t always respond immediately to a jabbing thumb. Yet such is the restless desire to keep moving on that these irritations are soon forgotten. After all, the next segment might just be a Rocky-style training montage that quickly cuts between a game of Whac-A-Mole and a sumo wrestling bout with an obese prehistoric penguin, or a rhythm-action sequence that sees a hip-shaking hippo distracting guards in a geisha disguise.
Indeed, we wonder if the time travel plot is simply to allow Sanzaru to lob more ingredients into the melting pot. Each new world offers the chance to rescue and then play as one of Sly’s ancestors, from a muscular Neanderthal to a nimble sushi chef, with missions tailored around their abilities. Though objectives differ, the structure is broadly similar, with quests pilfering a number of the best heist movie standards; you might begin with a bit of photographic reconnaissance, followed by retrieving items from a shopping list, then perhaps a pursuit combined with a little eavesdropping.
Yet there’s always the potential for surprise. Mistakes are made, and plans go awry: one mission has a false ending, while an unexpected hitch in a meticulously arranged strategy results in the wrong character fighting the boss – in a rhythmic memory test on ice skates, naturally. The script may not be as funny as it thinks it is, though in the face of such invention even the most groansome gags and lame puns add to the freewheeling, ramshackle charm.
Those who find themselves exhausted by the game’s apparent attention deficit disorder have the chance to slow the pace by exploring the expansive environments. The worlds may be variations on familiar themes, but they’re colourful and skilfully constructed, with rails to grind, hooks to swing from, and air cylinders to ride with the help of a portable parachute. There’s a deep attention to visual detail, perhaps best exemplified by the mission in which you’re asked to deface posters of a corrupt sheriff: each graffitied embellishment is different, even though you only see it for a few seconds.
Waypoints are thankfully absent, so you’ll have to rely on natural curiosity to discover all the hidden collectables, rather than trekking to a map marker à la Assassin’s Creed. It’s worth taking the time to locate and ascend the tallest peak, though, since you can pull out your binoculars to spot distant treasures and then race them back to your hideout against a tight time limit to claim a cash bonus. Locate all the clue bottles in a world and you can also open a safe for an extra surprise. There’s plenty to keep you occupied, in other words, but this is a substantial game even if you stick to the script.
Thieves In Time is such a pleasure to play for the vast majority of its healthy runtime that its problems are all the more disappointing. Some players will inevitably tire of the game’s hyperactivity, particularly in the rare moments where a new addition falls flat, and there’s some noticeable artifacting in the otherwise excellent cartoon cutscenes, which bizarrely come without subtitles, even if you have them enabled from the pause menu. The biggest issue, however, is that the load times are excessively long and, coupled with the occasionally indulgent narrative interruptions, this is to the clear detriment of the game’s pacing. It’s a particular issue on a portable platform.
Still, Sanzaru’s heroic efforts do enough to earn our patience. Its game may rarely do anything you haven’t seen done better elsewhere, but the developer knots a slew of disparate elements together with no little skill, leaving the whole feeling irresistibly fresh. Fittingly, given the time travel theme at its core, it feels like the product of a different era, one before focus testing began to gradually sand down games’ rough edges, often diminishing their personalities in the process. Perhaps, after all, a thief’s most important quality is charisma – and, for all his faults, you can’t deny this roguish racoon still has that in spades.