The Simple Pleasures of Exploration in Sly 4

When buying a house, they always say location is everything.  Never have I heard this applied to video games, however.  What people typically cite as being important to them in gaming is an engaging story or interesting characters, or simply good gameplay.  While I would agree that all of those are far more important than graphics or where a game might happen to take place, when I played through the fourth installment of the Sly Cooper series, I found that my favorite aspect of the game was something quite unexpected.

After becoming a huge Sly Cooper fan (within the first hour of the first game, as a matter of fact), it was only natural I bought Thieves in Time on the PS3.  Nevertheless, while I certainly can’t say I was reluctant to play the game, part of me was actually a bit doubtful as to how good it would be, considering the game is not made by its original creator, Sucker Punch, but rather a company called Sanzaru.  Games often don’t fare well when they’re abandoned by their original creators.

I know a lot of people didn’t end up liking this game nearly as much as the originals, while many others didn’t play it to begin with, but I myself ended up really enjoying the game.  In all honesty, I am generally pleased with Sanzaru’s efforts at a Sly Cooper game, though I do understand why many people had less than positive things to say about it.  While the game, in essence, is very faithful to the original series, I will admit that there are definitely some flaws.  The thing is, you see…well, the story isn’t very good, and there are some details I never understood.  There is also a plot twist that angered many, including myself, which makes me seriously question how well Sanzaru understood certain characters.  This game also has the weakest villains of the series, which is a shame, as I typically found the villains to be quite interesting in the original trilogy.

After all that, you would think my opinion of this game would have greatly suffered.  Strangely enough, though, this game actually redeemed for me itself simply through pure level design.  As I cited before, I doubt most would say that level design is the most important aspect to a video game.  The appropriate kinds of games do benefit from good level design, of course, and an interesting art style can help, as well, but there typically has to be something else that makes a game good.  And yet, the locations featured in this game might actually be the sole reason why this is now my second favorite game in the series.

I always loved the level design in Sly Cooper games.  Not only was it fun getting to visit different countries around the world, but they were just generally interesting and well done.  While Sucker Punch is clearly the true master of the series, I think level design is one area in which Sanzaru actually has them beat.  The levels in this game range from Medieval England to the Old West, and every location was just so big and detailed, I could literally spend hours just exploring and getting lost as I searched for clue bottles and treasures in every nook and cranny.  The environment was just so beautiful, as well, and I admired everything around me, from the water trickling through the rocks and the delicate paper lanterns in Japan to the distant rock formations in the Old West.  My favorite level was actually Arabia, which I would challenge anyone not to fall in love with as soon as you leave your hideout and see that beautiful sunset over the emerald waters and the ships gently bobbing in the waves.  Sanzaru put detail everywhere I looked, not just the parts of the stage where you actually explored, but in the distance, as well.  I remember staring in wonderment at the misty, moonlit hills surrounding me in England, and at the distant castles on the forested mountaintops.  And I couldn’t help but smile when I noticed a caravan of camels in Arabia, so tiny from where I stood, dwarfed as they were by the massive sand dunes.

The locations featured in this game filled me with a childlike awe I hadn’t felt in a long time.  They were beautiful to behold, and they made me think about what lay beyond my little corner of this fictional world.  What would I find had I the chance to venture through that foggy, dark forest or travel beyond those rocky archways in that massive, copper desert?  Who resided in those looming castles and grand palaces?  Ah, the tales of mystery and wonder my mind wove at the mere sight of these things.

Plus, every level had its fair share of secrets to find, and I could explore for an hour, only to be surprised by a new secret door I had never passed before.  I just love it when platformers give us this opportunity to really explore like this.  It reminds me of two of my old favorites, Banjo-Kazooie and Tooie, for you could find hidden secrets in those games, as well, if you looked hard enough.  I guess I just enjoy that kind of engagement with my environment.  Rather than just being another place to walk through as you head to your next goal, even the world around you is a game.  It’s nice when there’s more to a video game than just battling enemies or traversing difficult obstacles.  Sometimes I simply enjoy the pleasure I get from simple, quiet exploration and discovery.  (The magic carpet in Arabia was a nice touch.  I was so excited when I finally figured out how to ride it.)

Yes, Thieves in Time does have some issues, but I believe it’s worth checking out, despite its flaws.  Regardless of all this, I still think Sanzaru did a pretty good job, considering they were taking on someone else’s franchise.  I will admit, yes, that there is something off about this game and its characters that probably all comes from a different team of people trying to duplicate something they didn’t originally help to create.  They did go astray in some areas, but for me, they more than made up for it in the beautiful locations they gave us to explore.  So if you are a Sly Cooper fan (or you want to become one) and you enjoy these kinds of things, maybe you’ll want to give this game a try.  You might just have a better time with it than you expected.

Ducks in Time

2 thoughts on “The Simple Pleasures of Exploration in Sly 4”

  1. Plot aside, Thieves in Time is definitely an excellent game. It’s environments are downright stunning, and the levels really feel like living, breathing spaces. As good as the originals are, their levels (with the possible exception of the jungle in Sly 2) never really rise above just feeling like spaces to creep around in.

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    1. I just had so much fun exploring the levels in Sly 4. It brought back memories of exploring the worlds of Banjo-Kazooie and Tooie. The original trilogy is great, and the stories are superior to that of Sly 4, but Sanzaru’s contribution to the series was an absolute joy just to walk around and check out all the little details in their massive environments.

      Liked by 1 person

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