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Thief of Thieves

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Rival Games
Release Date: 2018


PC Review - 'Thief of Thieves'

by Cody Medellin on Sept. 7, 2018 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Thief of Thieves is an episodic/character-driven game of heists and the people who perform them, based on Robert Kirkman's Thief of Thieves graphic novel series.

Unless you're big into comics, the name Robert Kirkman may only be familiar to you as the creator of "The Walking Dead." The success of that property, especially the AMC TV series, has naturally led to several video games, and while most of them were mediocre at best, it was the Telltale titles that struck a chord, elevating both the company and the property to a different level with fans. Based on that, it would make sense that someone other than Telltale would take another Kirkman property, "Thief of Thieves," and make it into an episodic adventure game where choices matter. Surprisingly, the end product is wildly different.

You play the role of Celia Kowalczyk, professional cat burglar and protégé to a world-renowned master thief named Redmond. On her way back from Italy, she's pulled aside for questioning by an FBI agent who knows who she really is but can't exactly pin her to any particular crimes. Throughout the questioning, you'll go back to the events that led Celia to go abroad in the first place and the events that caused here to come back.

The narrative is a familiar one, but what makes it compelling is how the little details change the narrative flow in significant ways. Get spotted by someone, for example, and you'll be told about it in the interrogation. Similarly, fail to do a side-quest, and there's a good chance that it'll get mentioned later on. The familiar cat-and-mouse game between the thief and the authorities will always be interesting, but those small changes that reflect your actions make it even better.

At first, Thief of Thieves seems like it would closely follow the Telltale mold. The game has plenty of dialogue sequences, and each time you respond, you get to do so with at least two choices and a timer working against you. This not only happens on pivotal moments when you can change the course of the story but also during more casual parts, where the mechanic just prevents the player from having awkward pauses during a conversation. You get no hint that particular choices will impact the rest of the narrative until they're mentioned during your present-day interrogation.

For the most part, you'll be playing through a stealth game. Since you're trained to be a thief, you're quite adept at cracking safes and picking locks via minigames. The same goes for pickpocketing, but there doesn't seem to be a penalty for failing in any of those minigames. Some of the basic stealth mechanics, like doing crouch walks and hiding in the shadows, work fine, and you can vault over low objects without making any noise. You can also pick up a few objects to make noise somewhere else and activate objects to perform the same function. Interestingly, while you can do all of those things and run, you can't punch, knock out, choke people, or push them from great heights. For the most part, this is a pacifist's stealth game.

For the first two episodes, your stealth missions are fairly thorough. You'll start each episode by going to the site and casing it, completing the required objectives along with a few optional ones, if possible. That means you'll revisit stages as a means of padding the game, but your approach to the heist can change depending on which secondary objectives you complete. For example, discover all of the alarm systems in an area when casing the place, and your actual heist run can compensate for that.

While that may sound appealing to stealth enthusiasts, especially those who always go for no-kill runs, there are many things in Thief of Thieves that seem to actively work against you in annoying ways. For starters, the camera is a cinematic one and cannot be moved. That becomes crucial in a game like this, as you can't monitor guard movements easily, especially with no minimap at your disposal. Figuring out their patterns with your given camera angle relies more on trial and error or simply outrunning guards and hoping to make an exit, rather than acting in true stealth fashion. The ability to climb over objects is also limited, so if you're being pursued, you can't always guarantee an escape route for yourself unless you hold down a button to see the points of interest and help text.

The guards and your companions are something that game has trouble processing, mostly because their AI is all over the place. There are times when they'll be able to spot you a mile away, and on other occasions, you can be right next to them and they won't bat an eyelash. You can even outrun them because they'll only catch up if you get stuck in the environment — something that can happen more often than you'd think. When they do catch you, you'll see that a mere tackle is enough to disable Celia and cause you to restart from the last, sometimes inconvenient, checkpoint.

Cameras are always accurate and will spot you even if a pixel is in their range; you'll also do this often since their spotlights are difficult to see, regardless of the time of night or day. As for your AI, you have at least one partner for some of the missions, but the fact that you can do everything yourself means that their presence goes unused. Meanwhile, it can be more difficult than it should to trigger some of the secondary objectives, since you'll see their activation dots but no button prompt ever appears, making it a mystery whether the object you're viewing is important or whether your past action has rendered it useless. That's the case with a controller. Use a keyboard and mouse combo, however, and all of the options are open to you, and everything can be selected freely. It's a wonder that the controls feel so incomplete since there are plans to port this title to a console.

One thing Thief of Thieves does differently from other episodic titles comes from the release schedule. The initial release of the game issued the first two episodes at the same time, and two weeks later, the season was complete. That speed makes you wonder why the game was split up into episodes in the first place, as it would have been better served as one stand-alone release instead of an episodic title that would have all of the episodes done in less than a month. Then again, it does alleviate the worry that the game would never finish the season — a scenario that has plagued a number of episodic games.

As such, what originally started as a review of the first two episodes has immediately been transformed into a review of the whole season. That's important mostly because of how those last two episodes change the gameplay in the stealth missions. The third episode has stealth missions where no casing is done, reminding you of other stealth games where you just have one shot at seeing your layout and getting it right. The fourth episode introduces much more of the social engineering side of thievery while still placing you in brand-new environments for the actual job.

Compared to the first two episodes, these last two feel like more consequences are riding on them. The third episode has a few major parts where someone could die and change the structure of the next episode depending on your choices, while episode four contains more than a few segments where you can immediately screw things up and have to restart to get things back on track. It's nice to have these higher stakes, but it also amplifies how bad the stealth mechanics are overall.

The presentation is quite good in parts. The heavy comic book style with a little bit of watercolor background remains striking, no matter how many times we've seen it before. The heavy use of comic book panels also ties the game to its origins and saves it from displaying awkward animations. The game does this often, as you'll warp when climbing over objects or actively trying to blend in with the crowd. Getting knocked down also produces hilarious results because you tend to fly across the room from a single push.

On the audio side, the music is sparse but evokes the cool heist vibe of similar movies. At the same time, the silence is sometimes disappointing to hear when another music track could have been used instead. Voice work is excellent among every cast member, but there are times when it drops off for no apparent reason.

Your impression of Thief of Thieves will depend greatly on how much you enjoy the story. It isn't exactly a story full of twists and surprises, but the ride is captivating enough to keep you hooked until the end. A great look and good voice acting are nice, but it's the stealth mechanics that hurt the title because it does more things wrong in this area than right. If you want to take a chance on Thief of Thieves, wait for a sale. Otherwise, you can probably pass on it and hope a possible sequel will handle things better.

Score: 6.0/10

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