Return of the Blog: Sly Cooper Thieves in Time and the Unfortunate Case of Weak Villains

Hello interwebs! After almost four months of not posting, I’ve returned to update the blog. It has been a long, cold winter and I didn’t have much motivation to do anything after work but come home to my apartment and stay warm. But now that the weather is turning, let’s face it, lukewarm at best, I’m already wanting to get back in the swing of things and go adventuring.

Which isn’t to say I haven’t done some adventuring in the last few months. On February 4th and 5th two games from my two of my favorite video game series were released, respectively Fire Emblem: Awakening and Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. So even as the North wind blew, even as it snowed, and New York entered a deep freeze, I still enjoyed some fun virtual adventures. I’ll get to Fire Emblem: Awakening later, so read on to find out what I thought about Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time!

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. Developed by Sanzaru Games, published by Sony Computer Entertainment

This is the first Sly game since Sly Cooper 3: Honor Among Thieves released all the way back in Fall of 2005! That’s almost eight years that fans of the series have waited for the next entry. With the large gap between releases, and the original Sly developers, Sucker Punch, handing the developmental reigns of Thieves in Time to Sanzaru Games, the company responsible for the HD upgrade of Sly’s first three adventures in The Sly Collection, there was a lot that could have gone terribly wrong in Sly’s newest adventure. Luckily, Sanzaru really knew what they were doing and they’ve developed another great entry in the Sly series, though far from the best.

During the long hiatus, the game explains that Sly wooed his archnemesis/love interest, the straight-edged Carmelita Fox. But old habits die hard, and Sly couldn’t resist the temptation to return to his thieving ways and get started on a new heist. Also during the hiatus, Sly’s brainy friend Bentley has invented a time machine! But suddenly Bentley notices that Sly’s family treasure, the eponymous item of the first game, the Thievius Raccoonus, is disappearing into the ether. Realizing that his time traveling technology has somehow found its way into the wrong hands, Bentley and Sly get the old gang back together to travel into the past, discover what is causing the Thievius Raccoonus to fade away, and set things right. What follows is an adventure across five time periods as Sly and the gang travel through the past. Along the way they meet up with Sly’s ancestors, Riochi Cooper, a sushi chef and ninja thief; Tennessee Kid Cooper, a wild west outlaw and gunslinger; Caveman Cooper (a.k.a. Bob), the prehistoric egg thief and founder of the Cooper clan; Sir Galleth of the Knights of the Cooper Order, an overly dramatic defender of chivalry; and finally Salim Al-Kupar, a member of the legendary Forty Thieves. All of Sly’s ancestors have been captured by the mysterious villain Le Paradox, thus keeping them from making the historic heists that had been recorded in the Thievius Raccoonus. It’s up to Sly and the gang, with the help of Sly’s ancestors, to restore history and save the Cooper family name.

The titular character of the Sly series and thief extraordinaire, Sly Cooper.

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time jumps right into the action, and fans of the series will be able to pick things right up. The controls are the same as the previous games, the visuals are immediately familiar, and the series’ slapstick humor is here in spades. It hardly felt like any time had passed at all when I picked up the controller and jumped into sneaky action with Sly, Bentley and Murray. Also an added bonus was being able to play as Sly’s ancestors as well as Sly’s sultry love interest, Inspector Carmelita Fox. Aside from Caveman Cooper, or Bob as the rest of the characters call him, all of Sly’s ancestors play pretty much the same as Sly, but they do have some unique abilities of their own. My favorite of these was Tennessee Kid Cooper, whose trademark Cooper cane turned out to be a slick six-shooter that led to some awesomely fun, if simple third-person shooting action. Also new to Thieves in Time is the ability to use costumes, disguises that Sly dons to sneak past enemies, as well as give him unique abilities, from attacks to movement. My favorite costume was the Robin Hood-esque archer costume that allows Sly to shoot enemies from a distance with arrows, and shoot a rope to distant targets to allow Sly to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Bentley, Murray, and Carmelita also join in the action. Bentley and Murray control pretty much the same as they have since Sly 2, but they do have a few new tricks up their sleeves. New is the ability to play as Carmelita, who wields her trademark shock pistol with a vengeance. Murray may be the brawler, but Carmelita is quite a powerhouse herself and she can decimate enemies with ease.

One of the greatest things about the Sly games since Sly 2: Band of Thieves, is the different areas the gang explores in order to pull of their heists. The player is given a large, free roaming playground where they can explore, pick pockets, find secrets, and just enjoy being able to play as Sly or one of his friends. Unfortunately, this is one of the areas where Thieves in Time falls a bit short. The Japanese area, which is the first in the game, was actually a pretty big disappointment for me. There were no really great vantage points, everything looked the same, and it was hard to tell which direction was which without constantly checking the map. The Prehistoric area and the Arabian area were also a tad disappointing for the same reasons. But even though 3/5ths of the areas of the game were not totally great, The Old West and Medieval areas were both fantastic and reminded me exactly of why I grew so fond of the Sly series.

I can survive without the great playgrounds and that is kind of a minor complaint. My biggest disappointment in Thieves in Time is the villain, a stinky skunk named Le Paradox. The player learns that Le Paradox is from another family of thieves, like Sly, but Sly’s father humiliated Le Paradox’s and ruined the Le Paradox family name. The character did have potential to be a great foil to Sly, but instead he isn’t developed as a character at all until the fifth area and the endgame climax. I usually expect to feel righteous anger, or at the very least a strong sense of tension when it comes to a final boss fight, but all I felt for Le Paradox was apathy. He was a sad villain compared to what I was hoping would be done in a time-traveling Sly game.

The archnemesis of the Cooper clan, and main villain of Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, Clockwerk!

When Sly was introduced in Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, he was introduced alongside a superb villain, the ancient mechanized owl, Clockwerk. I’d argue that Clockwerk is one of the best villains in all of video gamedom, and he only truly appeared in the first Sly game. In all honesty, I can see why the developers shy away from making another villain like Clockwerk as he was perhaps too sinister a villain for a game with a primary audience of ages ten and up. But dang, Clockwerk was cool, and the series has seriously suffered in the bad guy department since Clockwerk’s defeat at the end of Thievius Raccoonus. Sly 2 did come close. It  created that tension again at the end when Neyla fuses with Clockwerk’s reassembled body and becomes Clock-La, but Sly 3 and now Thieves in Time have suffered from the lack of a strong villain. To be sure the end bosses of each area have always been hilarious, fun, and sometimes even a little scary, but they can’t even begin to fill the role of main villain, and the main villain of the Sly games that have come since Thievius Raccoonus have not even begun to fill the void left by Clockwerk. So remembering the backstory of Thievius Raccoonus, where Clockwerk was a shadowy figure that appeared throughout the history of the Cooper clan, whose hatred for Sly’s family ran so deep that it survived his own death, I thought for sure that he’d show up somewhere in Thieves in Time. But Clockwerk never appeared, and was only mentioned in text snippets at loading screens. A perfect villain who could have added immediacy to the game, who could have made it completely compelling and hold gamers at the edge of their seat through the entire adventure, never once even makes an appearance. I am a firm believer that a strong villain can make or break a game; I even wrote my master’s thesis on the role villains play in video games! But sadly Sly has been lacking in the villain department for a long time. It looks like there will for sure be at least one more game in the Sly series though, so maybe Clockwerk will return in some form when the time comes.

Despite my villainous grievances against the lack of villainy in Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, I still did have a lot of fun playing. It was great to hop on ropes, spire jump on top of flagpoles, pickpocket guards, and all in all just enjoy some stealthy platforming action like I haven’t been able to since 2005. Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, despite its flaws is a fun game that I’m proud to have in my (digital) library.

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