"As Sly Cooper, you'll be able to learn quite a bit as one page of the Thievius Raccoonus after another falls into your paws. There are somewhere around 15 moves--some of them merely enhancements of simpler ones--that you can learn. But here's the best part: none of them are required. You can go through the game without learning a single one if you're so inclined."
Life can be tough for a raccoon. After spending around 15 hours with Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, I should know. I dodged security lasers, outwitted a voodoo-loving gator, dodged attacks from an over-zealous but sexy policewoman, and in general caused mayhem while recovering the stolen pages of the Thievius Raccoonus. But I had a heck of a time doing it, which leads me to one shocking conclusion: Sly Cooper and the Thievius Racconus is the best platformer to come about in years, and you owe it to yourself to play it.
It's generally bad form to start with graphics in a review. And it's also bad form to talk in the first-person. Maybe it's the raccoon this game brought out in me, but for a few moments I find myself not caring what's bad form and what isn't. And a large part of what accomplished that for me is this game's visuals. From the minute the searchlight flashes over the Sucker Punch logo (remember them, the team responsible for the competent but oft-overlooked Rocket: Robot on Wheels for the Nintendo 64?) to the last segment of video before the credits roll with the stylish raccoon head in the background, it's clear someone in the art department sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for the perfect design. The look is cel-shaded, though not in the same way Jet Set Radio Future is. The detail here is simply amazing, with detail at every turn. Sly Cooper, the hero in the game, has a bushy tale and a sharp nose. Rather than looking like a sketch with the edges filled in, the shading applies in a more organic sense. He looks like a cartoon, sure, but better in some sense that's as elusive as the coon himself.
That visual mastery extends to the way Sly Cooper animates. He can press sharply against a wall and sidle along a ledge. He can duck behind a short pile of rocks while his foe spreads a flashlight over the area. Gasp in wonder as the light touches the edges of his fur. Perfection. Then the guard looks away and Sly heads in for the attack. He sneakily tiptoes after his opponent then, at the last moment, leaps into the air and employs one of his special moves. Time slows as the unwitting guard starts to turn, but it is too late. Sly Cooper swings his staff and whacks the confused villain across the nose. It's on!
Let me say it again: the art direction here is astounding. And that's not limited to the hero. Villains also have amazing detail. They all move fluidly, though a little more clumsily than the mascot driving the title. Clumsy is good, though, as your opponents are for the most part buffoons. They all look the part. And they aren't limited to only one move. Most foes have several moves. If the bulldog leaps from its house and hits you, try not to laugh as it takes a bow for the audience it must imagine has witnessed its triumph. Yes, it's so good that you may find yourself laughing even when you die.
After the stunning animation you're watching the whole time you play, the cinemas between levels can seem a little anti-climatic. They tend to be still shots with little spurts of animation here and there. That's fine, though, because even with this limitation, they're stylish. And did I mention they're funny? Yes, this game has bits of humor that appear at every opportunity. Most of this relates to the villains you're facing. Each area you complete has a boss, and the cinemas preceding a given set of stages tell the tragic tales of how these villains went from cute kids to the horrors they are now. Maybe if the world had treated them more kindly in the sandbox days, Sly Cooper wouldn't have to take them down now.
But take them down he must, and he'll have the help of his good pals, a turtle and a hippo. Bentley is the turtle, and he's the nerd of the group. He briefs you between levels and at key points elsewhere. Murry is the hippo. He likes paddleball and he drives the team van. As you progress through the game, you'll really feel like they're your pals, despite their flaws. It's cool how much character development went into this game. It's not necessary in a platformer, so props go out to Sucker Punch for making the extra effort.
One of the ways they accomplish that is through the sound effects department. There's quite a bit more voice acting than you might expect. Sly Cooper narrates most of the events. But you're not limited only to his voice. There's Carmelitta Fox, who shouts at you at some points. And there are your afore-mentioned buddies and the boss villains when you finally meet them. All have something to say, and each voice is distinctive. If the emphasis is wrong on occasion, the effect is brilliant just the same. This isn't a game that takes itself seriously, and that's precisely as it should be. Plus there are subtitles at all points, so maybe if you're pumping the tunes from your jukebox, you don't miss out on the story's exposition.
Of course, playing the boombox would mean you're missing out on the excellent sound, which extends beyond the stellar voice acting. There are around 5 distinct areas and hubs, and each has its own appropriate music. At times this can be a little weak, but for the most part its extremely appropriate and often catchy. More impressive is the way the music seamlessly transitions into a different sound if Sly is drawing near to some enemies. The tempo changes noticeably, and sometimes the music is even different. It's a nice touch that really keeps you in a raccoon state of mind as you capture those pages from the Thievius Raccoonus.
Yes, the Thievius Raccoonus, from which this game derives its title. It seems Sly Cooper is only the latest in a long line of Coopers. Each of his ancestors was a master thief. When Sly was but a wee coon, however, terrible villains killed his family and took away the book they'd passed from one generation to the next, then tore it into pieces that they scattered in strongboxes throughout the world. Your goal when you take the role of Sly Cooper is of course to retrieve all of them. It's a somewhat generic plot, sure, and in the hands of a lesser developer, it would be doomed to failure. Here, it manages mostly to float just fine, partly because of the comaradrie shared by Sly and his buddies, partly because of the twists in plot involving the lovely vixen, Carmellita Fox. Any spoilers I would give are admittedly mild, but I'll just conclude discussion of plot by saying the one you'll find here is as deep as that in any regular platformer. And somehow, it manages to drive you to complete that next stage.
Another thing driving you to complete just one more level--and one more, and another after that--is the gameplay itself. I've touched on it a little above, but there's so much that really ought to be said. As Sly Cooper, you'll be able to learn quite a bit as one page of the Thievius Raccoonus after another falls into your paws. There are somewhere around 15 moves--some of them merely enhancements of simpler ones--that you can learn. But here's the best part: none of them are required. You can go through the game without learning a single one if you're so inclined. All the moves you must use to navigate stages are handed to you after defeating various bosses.
This forces you to make an important decision: to rush through the stages and reach the end of the game, or to take one's time and collect all the new moves? I recommend the latter. You'll have an easier time later on if you take your time mastering each new move. One move might be the ability to slow time while you're in the air. Another allows you to fall into water without taking a hit. You can also turn invisible and roll out of the way of attacks. The variety isn't so large as perhaps it could have been, but there are times when each move can prove useful. By the end of the game, some of them get downright cheap, but those are really just a reward for the determined player.
And make no mistake: there are times you'll have to be determined. See, the way a new move is unlocked is rather expected: you must collect a whole bunch of clues throughout a stage. There's are written on scraps of paper sealed in bottles you'll find scattered about. A stage may have anywhere from 20 to 40 clues, and some of them are hidden quite cleverly. This means that if you find those last few cheap moves, you've worked at it and have proven you're familiar enough with the game that the clues are just icing on the cake. By the time you learn most of the new moves, in fact, you'll be thinking ''Boy, I could have used those three levels back when I was going through all those lasers.''
That's the appeal of this game, though: you can get through no matter what. Most major challenges have several ways you can pass them. Say there's a brute blocking a narrow hallway ahead with his flashlight. A head-on attack is not going to work. He'll see you and blast you. Instead, ride the lift up to the roof, then drop down from behind and show him who's boss. Or sneak around the outer edge of the balcony. The choice is yours. No matter what your style of play, the game's incredible level design accommodates you without taking you by the hand. It's a fine balance and for the most part, Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus manages just fine. If there's one complaint, it's that the game is going to come across as slightly easy for more experienced gamers.
I say 'slightly easy' and stress the 'slightly,' because there are still moments that will have you on the verge of blaming the controller. This is not the main game, where Sly moves like a dream. In that realm, there's seldom a point where you'll remember you're holding a controller at all. Everything comes naturally, whether you're leaping from one pinpoint ledge to the next, or swinging along hooks over a bottomless ravine. No, the problems come in the mini games. There are several points where you must complete mini games to finish a stage. Generally, these involve racing, covering Murry as he dashes for a key, or various other challenges. These breaks from the real action can at times be frustrating, but never in the Donkey Kong 64 sort of way. You'll master them within reasonable time and probably find them enjoyable afterward.
With all those obvious strengths, where does the game fall short? Well, I already mentioned most of the flaws. It's just that nothing here feels entirely new. Sly Cooper has depth, but that's been true of other protagonists. The levels he goes through are beautiful, but they still are somewhat derivative (you have your snow level, your swamp level, etc.). If you go through this title, just don't expect everything to be new and you'll be fine. In fact, even though it will take you somewhere from 12 to 16 hours to get that 100% (bolstered by the ability to run through each stage in a time trial, as well as the collection of all those clues), you're likely to reach the end of this game thinking it was way too short. It's not too short. It's longer than normal. No, the biggest problem of all is one that haunts most games: even at 100 hours, this would be too short. It's the kind of game that leaves me wanting a sequel. Here's hoping we see one.
Staff review by Jason Venter (February 09, 2003)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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