A really enjoyable debut outing for the thieving raccoon and his friends that mixes platforming with stealth in a surprisingly fun package.
World-building & Story
Sly Cooper comes from a long line of master raccoon thieves whose adventures are chronicled in the Thievius Racoonus, a book containing all the family secrets. When this is stolen by the Fiendish Five, a group of master criminals, it’s up to Sly and his best buddies Bentley and Murray to retrieve this important heirloom.
The trio will travel across the globe on their adventure, from the bright lights and colourful casinos of Mesa City to the snowy mountaintops of China – each one feels like a larger-than-life take on a real-world location and it makes exploring the universe of Sly Cooper a real joy as you’re never quite sure where you’ll be jetting off to next. The fact each location is filled with anthropomorphic animals that act as your foes help sell the coherency of this world too – every little detail seems carefully planned out.
The actual story is fine – nothing special, but a perfectly service 3D platformer plot. What makes it special is the characterisation – each villain is given a back-story before you come across them and this helps make your encounters more impactful, providing much-needed context for their bad deeds. There’s also some lovely banter between Sly and his friends (even if Murray is somewhat irritating) and I particularly liked Sly’s flirty dialogue with Carmelita Fox, who always seems one step behind him. He’s a charming lead character in a way that Jak and Ratchet aren’t, which definitely helps him stand out.
The film noir tone that permeates all the storytelling adds a nice stylish touch too, ensuring the whole package is extremely memorable.
Presentation & Sound
By using heavily stylised cartoon graphics, Sly Cooper has aged nicely and although simplistic, still manages to look impressive on Vita – although a few rough edges in the porting process let things down.
Sly and his buddies all have simplistic 3D models – although they animate well, running and sneaking in an exaggerated manner (I particularly liked the little Metal Gear Solid-esque talking heads during conversation scenes, where Sly looks particularly cute for some reason). Enemies have some creative designs too – squids that patrol and squirt ink when they spot you or nunchuck-wielding tigers, meaning the game oozes charm through its design.
Environments are the less impressive part of the package although they still have moments of brilliant. The game shines most when you’re jumping between neon-lit signs on a rooftop while the sun sets leaving a gorgeous mix of pastel oranges and purples, or you’re escaping the gunfire of Carmelita while running along a collapsing Chinese wall covered in snow. There are definite moments of beauty in here and I found myself taking plenty of screenshots.
Unfortunately, large chunks of Sly Cooper are far less pretty – a group of levels set in a swamp being particularly bad offenders thanks to their poor lighting, drab colours and just general lifeless feel. You’ll find a few technical problems along the way too such as pop-in of far-off objects and low-quality texture work, all of it a product of the game’s PS2 roots and hardly exclusive to the Vita version.
With that said, this is a very good port job on the whole – Sanzaru should be commended on their work here as the framerate stays steady, load times aren’t too long and the resolution stays steady. The only thing which has lost out in the move to handheld is the quality of the pre-rendered cutscenes which have been compressed down to a blurry mess – not a massive issue, but a little disappointing all the same.
There’s tonnes of voice acting here and all of it is very high quality (I particularly liked the grunts and squeals Murray would make during the escort missions) and there’s also some impressive sound effects, such as the rhythmic tip-toe noises that play when Sly sneaks like out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Music is less memorable, but this is certainly a soundtrack that compliments the film noir theme.
Gameplay & Content
Effortlessly blending 3D platforming design with stealth elements, Sly Cooper is a very unique title that successfully pulls off what it sets out to do.
You’ll play through a series of levels divided to areas based on a theme (i.e you’ll start off in a desert canyon and end up in the snowy mountains), each one containing a little mini hub world at the start and portals to other areas from this (similar to the Spyro games). In each level, you’ll need to collect a key which is used to unlock the route to the boss arena, which is then repeated in each subsequent hub.
The majority of the time you’ll be controlling Sly, who is a nimble and fun-to-play protagonist. Aside from platforming staples like the ability to jump, dodge and melee attack his most useful skill is that he can shimmy up pipes, tip-toe along ledges and perch on tiny platforms with just a press of the circle button (which both locks him onto and then attaches him to the object) – the level of environmental interaction is insane and it’s enjoyable figuring out where you can go and what you can do as a master thief.
His moveset will expand as the game goes on too – each level contains a number of clue bottles and finding all of these allows you to open a safe, which will contain a new skill. Some offer combat upgrades (e.g a spinning dive attack), some offer quality-of-life help (e.g the ability to slow time when jumping) while others just offer things you can mess around with (e.g throwing out decoys, which are really enjoyable for using to play around with the AI).
Outside of the hubs, the levels themselves are quite linear – there’s normally only one way through and figuring this out is the only difficulty (in a way, I was reminded of the first three Crash Bandicoot games in terms of design). Of course, along the way you’ll need to dodge laser grids, avoid spotlights and hide from guards to reach your goal and mixing these stealth elements with some enjoyable 3D platforming is a real winning formula.
Sadly, there are a couple of rough edges along the way – the platforming can be a bit imprecise sometimes, as can the lock-on mechanics which leads to some cheap deaths. In general I found this a pretty tough title where I faced multiple game overs – oddly it uses a lives system which doesn’t have much consequence as if you run out you just start a level again from the beginning, which feels like a bizarre archaic way to do things in light of contemporaries like Jak and Ratchet.
My biggest issue is the mini-games though – a common staple of 3D platformers, there are plenty here but they’re incredibly hit and miss. Things like protecting Murray with a cannon or an isometric racing mission are pretty enjoyable, but others like the twin-stick shooting sections are just really not fun and bring the whole pace crashing down. That said, they never overstay their welcome so I could at least look past some of their technical deficiencies.
Boss battles are probably the stars of the show – relying on pattern recognition and the skills you’ve picked up so far, they’re big on spectacle but fit in perfectly with Sly Cooper’s mechanics. Just one was a let-down (a rhythm game with terrible checkpointing) but the rest were particularly enjoyable and felt like good rewards for collecting all the keys.
Unfortunately Sly Cooper is a pretty short game – you’re probably looking at about 5 hours to see it through and maybe a little more if you want to go for all the collectables, which include speedrunning levels to get the best possible times. On the one hand, the title certainly leaves an impression during the short time it lasts, but I was left wanting more after it finished.
Still, these are just minor issues on an otherwise well-crafted and enjoyable platformer that smartly throws stealth elements into the mix. This is an adventure I had a lot of fun with and one that’s definitely worth checking out on Vita.
A smartly made 3D platformer with stealth elements thrown into the mix, Sly Cooper has been carefully ported over to Vita by Sanzaru Games. The charisma of the main cast is enjoyable and the level design here top notch – there are a few rough edges and a short run-time, but otherwise this is well worth checking out all these years later.