The Sly Trilogy Review
Sony PS Vita
Let’s face it, as a PlayStation mascot is a little second rate; despite four games to his name Cooper is constantly overshadowed, even by fellow Sucker Punch stablemate series inFamous. But, this is Sly Cooper we’re talking about – shadows are this raccoon’s bread and butter! So, it’s a pleasure to see Sly’s PlayStation 2 adventures released on the Vita as The Sly Collection, bringing together a trilogy that many will have missed. Having previously hit the PlayStation 3, releasing Sly Cooper upon Sony’s plucky handheld raises new questions (mostly to do with Vita-specific controls) but allows players to conduct some sneaky cel-shaded thievery out and about.
Sly Cooper, for those unfamiliar with the eponymous master thief, is the remaining member of the Cooper clan, a long lineage of pilferers. Their tricks of the trade reside in the Thievius Raccoonus, a weighty tome that acts as a MacGuffin for the introductory chapter in the Sly trilogy. As with playing the first few games in any series, taking a chronological stroll through the Sly games in order – Thievus Raccoonus, Band of Thieves and Honor Among Thieves – not only introduces characters and new features in a logical order but also goes some way to highlighting just how the series improved as each successive game launched.
The first Sly game introduces a lot of what would become staples in the series. What would become default moves in later games are here introduced via that MacGuffin, the Thievius Raccoonus. A dastardly group of villains has stolen the Cooper heirloom – both finding pages and completing each level sees Sly recover pages of the book, expanding his available moves and laying the groundwork for escapades to come. Over five bright, distinctive worlds Sly is beset by enemies from all sides, be it the police headed by Carmelita Fox, criminal gangs or a looming shadow from the past. It’s not high literature but the breezy, Saturday morning cartoon feel to the game renders the thin plot inconsequential in comparison to the gameplay itself.
The first Sly Cooper game is easily the weakest of the three and you can tell that Sucker Punch were finding their feet. It suffers from problems most platform games of the era shared – linearity, repetition and a hugely annoying lack of a health meter, meaning most of the time it’s one hit to fail a mission. Sly can’t swim – all the more annoying when levels revert to swathes of open water, one touch of which sees you restart the objective. Sly can accrue coins – that old platform staple – a hundred of which will offer you a measly extra chance should you be hit/fall in water/miss a jump. It’s something that needs to be there, but still feels stingy in the later levels and excessively long sections with no checkpoint.
Aside from some frustrating races that recall Micro Machines (except with endless failure as the result of bad controls) the first Sly game is an enjoyable if brief mixture of traditional platforming, basic stealth and the occasional mini-game dressed up as a mission. There are plenty of additional collectables, the main being clue bottles. Collect all of these in any given stage and you’ll be granted access to a safe containing another page of the Thievius Raccoonus, powering Sly up with an improved or entirely new skill. Some pages are mandatory, obtained from bosses and level completion, while others act as incentives to collecting all of the clue bottles in each area. It’s a nice touch and one that offers replayability beyond the first playthrough.
Sly 2 and 3 are a leap ahead in terms of gameplay – almost every niggle and irritation from the first game has been removed or streamlined, while the gameplay itself is greatly expanded. Sly’s reliable team, comprising tech expert Bentley and lovable lunk Murray are now integral to each mission, given that you assume control of each at certain points. While the first game felt like a platformer using heists as a backdrop to standard jump-and-run fare, Sly 2 and 3 instead have hub worlds with a central heist to plan and execute. It immediately improves the game; the tasks in preparation of a big score are varied, fun and perfect for the Vita given their bitesize nature.
It also makes the sequels considerably longer than the first Sly adventure; instead of a linear trot through five worlds, the hub-world nature of 2 and 3 makes exploration far less like backtracking and more akin to the assassin preparation of the first Assassin’s Creed. And, as with that game, there is the problem that there is too much of a good thing – missions can get repetitive, especially some of the more finicky tasks. Lucky then that Sucker Punch removed the patience-testing insta-death and give Sly a generous health meter (and health pickups) for the sequels, removing a large portion of the trial-and-error frustration – even if the blighter still can’t swim!
Playing as Murray and Bentley is a great addition and by moving them away from offscreen voices telling you what to do it ties the planned heists together as a team exercise, with the same player controlling each member. They also bring variation in terms of their movement – Bentley must rely on ranged sleep darts while Murray is far more of a physical presence, although neither can climb the way Sly can. Variation continues in the environments and enemies as well – each game sees the team visit wildly different countries as they zip back and forth across the globe.
If there are problems with the three games, one issue unique to the Vita is the dark colour-palette applied to many areas – great if you’re playing in the dark or on a TV screen, but on the go it can be difficult to make out some of the level geometry on the Vita. Many a Sly took a tumble due to the murky colours – especially disheartening in the less-than-charitable first entry. The repetition also takes its toll; despite inventiveness on show, the games do boil down to the same level structure. Certain things also don’t translate to HD particularly well, if they even resemble HD in the first place. Videos look worse than low-quality Youtube uploads and there are cutscenes evidently still sourced from the PlayStation 2 footage.
With an opening chapter weaker than its sequels, The Sly Collection is nevertheless an ideal opportunity to become acquainted (or reacquainted) with Sly, Bentley and Murray. These are some of the most entertaining platformers, hiding rather rudimentary gameplay behind vibrant designs, unexpected locales and the charming, innocent feel of Hanna Barbera animations. It’s not essential but it bulks up a sparse Vita line-up at exactly the right time of year, while educating the player on an underrated franchise. It also acts as a slice of gaming history – from Sly’s acrobatic movements you can trace a line between these games and the better known inFamous series. Nowadays, Sly plays second fiddle to Cole McGrath and Delsin Rowe. Nobody steals anything from Sly Cooper it seems – nothing, except possibly the limelight.