Friday, 15 November 2019

Switch Review - Thief of Thieves


'The Walking Dead' series by Telltale games is widely considered to be the best adaptation of  Robert Kirkman's comics. But in the hands of a different developer can justice be down to a dfiferent series created by this comic book celebrity?

Developed by Rival Games 
Published by Skybound
Released in 2019

In a world without LucasArts and Sierra, Telltale Games emerged as the new standard bearer for Point-and-click games. Of course, smaller publishers like WadgetEye games had been creating adventure games for home computers throughout the “point-and-click dark times” but here was a chance for the genre to become mainstreams again. Telltale Games’ founders Kevin Bruner, Dan Connors, and Troy Molander were all former LucasArts employees, and with well-known series like ‘Sam and Max’ and ‘Back to the Future’ in their portfolio, expectations were high. However, despite the undeniable quality of Telltale’s early output, the games only enjoyed moderate success. The inventory based puzzles and drawn out conversation trees felt archaic to some, and modern players even said they found the slow paced games boring. “After Telltale struggled to find the success it hoped for with ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘Back to the Future’ it began focusing on comics due to the natural crossover with its audience“ notes James Batchelor on GamesIndustry.biz. But it wasn’t just the types of licensed Intellectual Property that changed. The location and item based puzzles went, infamously replaced with a focus on quick-time events (QTE’s) and morality focused choices. It was a combination that propelled Telltale to stardom and with its numerous awards and unanimous critical praise ‘Telltale’s The Walking Dead’ became the metre stick against which all narrative focused games would be judged.

Dan Murray a CEO at Skybound - the comics original publisher - was certainly impressed.  “I would still look at season one of the Telltale game as a huge success story. That season of ‘The Walking Dead made Telltale into something no one expected them to become in that space”. 4 months after release, the game had sold more than 8.5 million episodes; taking more than $40 million in sales. To date, ‘The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series’ has sold more than 50 million episodes worldwide, earning more than 100 Game of the Year awards from outlets including Metacritic, USA Today, Wired, Yahoo!, The Telegraph, Mashable, Polygon, Destructoid, and GamesRadar. It was also the recipient of two BAFTA Video Games Awards for Best Story and Best Mobile Game. “‘The Walking Dead’ has become a global phenomenon thanks to the AMC [TV] series, but IP holder Skybound says the Telltale video games have had a more profound impact” observed Batchelor. “What started as a comic book became a television show, and then really it was the video game for us at Skybound, (the Telltale Walking Dead game), that fuelled this company," adds Murray.

As ‘The Walking Dead’ brand became better known, so too did Robert Kirkman, its original creator.  Amongst comic book fans he became a gold stars are and just the mention of Kirkman’s attachment was enough to generate a buzz for a new product. It’s for this reason that ‘Thief of Thieves’ comic series garnered such a cult following so quickly, however the  episodic game based on another of Kidman’s comic books arrived with little fanfare. This was largely down to the timing of its original PC release. After soaring so close to the sun so quickly “, Telltale games collapsed. Their shocking and sudden downfall has been attributed to all sorts of things: a dependency on expensive licensed IP rather than creating their own brands. An apparently toxic working environment, where staff was forced to work in a perpetual “crunch” to create a game episode a month. The demise of Telltale was so rapid that the company even abandoned creation of the fourth series of their most successful franchise. It came as a shock to even the comic’s publisher and Murray said the team at Skybound were "surprised like a lot of other folks". To save the reputation of their IP, Skybound had to finish series 4 of ‘‘The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series’ themselves creating an internal game development studio to get the job done. “It really wasn't a question whether we would do it or not, it was more, 'how the fuck are we going to do it?'" says Murray. “We all know games development is a risky business, sometimes all it takes is one bad game to kill a company”.

According to Batchelor at GameIndustry.biz,” the fate of Telltale has not deterred Skybound from working with other developers on its IP in the future. While the motivation behind forming Skybound Games was to [complete ‘The Walking Dead’] the publisher is still open to collaborations and is constantly evaluating new opportunities. For example, the company is working with Finnish developer Rival Games on an adaptation of another Kirkman comic, ‘Thief of Thieves’”.



Given that ‘Thief of Thieves’ is clearly influenced by ‘‘The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series’ it’s understandable that players were initially weary of it. Both games are episodic series, both are based on a Kirkman comic and both have a similar striking graphic-novel art style. However, while ‘The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series’’ evolved into narrative experiences with very little traditional gameplay, ‘Thief of Thieves’ is at its heart a heist game. Stealth focused levels are bookended by story sections. The game was developed by Rival Games, with the involvement of Skybound Entertainment. With their CEO, Dan Murray credited as Director.  Understandably, given their experiences with Telltale Games, the comic publisher is now a lot more hands-on with their properties.

Acting as a prequel to the comic on which it is based, the game focuses on the titular Thief of Thieves, Conrad Paulson. He’s a legendary gentleman thief and Robin Hood alike character. Rather than robbing the innocent he favours robbing other thieves, going by the alias Redmond. To keep his professional and personal life separate Redmond now depends on his protégé Celia, a cat burglar, to commit his crimes - directing her actions over the phone. “in the comics our main character Celia is already this sophisticated master thief” says Janos Honkonen the game’s lead writer. “our game takes place in a time when Celia is still learning the trade and everything doesn’t always go as planned”  “We’re excited to broaden Robert Kirtman’s world with a mix of characters from the original plot and fresh faces” adds Murray. “Rival Games have created an excellent expansion of the original storyline”. The new characters don’t really hold up to those in the comic though, depending far too much on over-the-top stereotypes.
Corbin “Chip” Tavistock, the hacker, speaks with a faux-London accent spouting off rhyming and street slang that I’ve never heard before despite working in England’s capital daily. Perhaps Rebel Games realised this midway through development too, as in the last two chapters Chip speaks entirely differently, with Celia even acknowledging the random change. But at least he had presence. The rest of Celia’s team are totally forgettable. There’s Korean muscle man Han-Jae, who randomly assaults people even though there isn’t reason for him to do so. Then there’s Sonia, an American locksmith with a strong southern accent. During the second heist she has one job, but asks if you’d like to do it for her. At the end of the game you choose who you’d like to join Celia on a heist? Going alone simply feels moe desirable, a telling reflection of the quality of the characters around her. That’s shouldn’t be considered a reflection on the voice artists though as ‘Thief of Thieves’ is audible incredible. Fryda Wolff’s Celia is the high point, but the supporting voice cast are universally impressive, even if the script they’re reading isn’t always. “Audio further distinguishes the two different modes in the game” says Audio Director Tommi Hartikainen. “the graphic novels are accompanied by a modern minimalist string quartet. While the action sequences feature a rock score”. It’s hard to fault the music of either mode, with the melodies melding perfectly with the drama on screen.

For a game that is sold on the strength of its story, I found the plot of the game made little sense. Despite quite lengthy cut scenes I never really understood why I needed to rob the targets given.  Throughout the game, there’s a selection of choices in the way Celia can respond to questions. “the tone of the story is a bit lighter than in the comics, but reckless choices will still have drastic consequences” claims Honkonen. However, I felt the decisions Celia made were entirely arbitrary with absolutely no repercussions. Significant narrative choice in games has always been an illusion. Developers need to funnel you towards a specific response as they can’t make provision for infinite possibilities. Telltale Games were better than most at giving irrelevant choices gravitas, making minor tweaks to who would be in a scene to reflect a choice made earlier. ‘Thief of Thieves’ attempts this towards the end of the game but for the most part you experience will be identical regardless of the amount of sass Celia dishes out. During one heist, I chose to discreetly break into a house to plant evidence rather than physically threaten the inhabitant. I achieved this goal perfectly, yet as I left the house my team mate assaulted him anyway. It was frustrating and made me feel like all the effort I went to was for nought.

Although Rival Games seem to believe their animated comic-book style intermissions are “unique” and  “revolutionary”, they’re actually something we’ve seen in games for decades. The Mega Drive’s ‘Comic Zone’ saw the panels of a comic come to life, and 25 years ago ‘Beneath a Steel Sky’ had very similar style cut-scenes drawn by Dave Gibbons. But despite being unoriginal, the comic book segments of ‘Thief of Thieves’ are certainly well done. Smoke drifts through the 2.5 visuals and the panels dissect each other in a manner befitting an ‘Oceans 11’ style film. The game’s opening is particularly eye catching. It starts with a silhouetted close up of Celia’s high healed shoe, which gradually zooms out to show a wide shot of her walking through a crowded airport. “the frames are a combination of the [comic’s] original style, and our own rougher approach” says Pau Nortontaus. It’s stylish, well done but hardly unique. ‘Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel’ was an entire game built around manipulating a motion-comic, and the interactions with Ashley Wood’s art in that game were a lot more varied than that seen in this title.

The comparisons to ‘Metal Gear Solid’ games continue into the gameplay sections that take place between the comic book style narrative expositions. Unlike the final Telltale games, where interaction with the game became little more the QTEs, ‘Thief of Thieves’ is first and foremost a sneaking game. “Our game combines story telling with stealth mechanics” says Lead designer Janne Kodisoja. “Combining those two in interesting ways  was our biggest challenge but also gave us our greatest opportunity.” Action is viewed from a third person perspective, with your view limited to a predetermined perspective akin to PlayStation 1 era ‘Resident Evil’ games. However, while you can shift between a few fixed viewing angels, without the ability to freely move the camera it’s hard to get a complete sense of the geography of each location. Often you’ll round corners not having the slightest clue what lays in wait, and your alternative camera only seems to show you where you’ve been rather than where you’re going. Celia may be a stealthy elegant thief within the story, but under my control she bumped against walls and got stuck in door frames.
In larger areas, the controls feel more forgiving. However in enclosed spaces, like the third chapter’s train for example, the lack of control precision makes everything harder than it needs to be. Walking in a straight line down a train carriage should never take this much effort, and it was made all the harder due to the zoomed out view. When the Switch is docked things aren’t as bad, but when ‘The Thief of Thieves’ is played in handheld mode even the direction Celia is facing is hard to interpret on the console’s smaller screen. Sometimes it feels like style has been given priority of practicality and there’s a clear lack of consistency too. Sometimes you can volt over waist high obstructions, but other times you can’t step up onto a pavement. There’s a tendency for all environmental elements to blend together especially during a levels dark. 
Thankfully, holding the L button activates your thief sense which highlights all the interactive things within a location. Obviously you’ll need to use these in the correct way to achieve the mission objectives listed on in the right of the screen. You’ll hack computers, pick locks, interrogate random people and deliberately trigger alarms to achieve your arbitrary list of goals.  While you’re doing this you’ll have to avoid the gaze of security, their searchlights and cameras. However without the vision cone or radar the typically feature in stealth games like ‘Volume’ or ‘Splinter Cell’, dodging the guards in ‘Thief of Thieves’ also feels very hit and miss. Their awareness of you is symbolised by the thickness of lines at the edge the screen, with ‘Metal Gear Solid‘ style question marks appearing above their heads when they are aware of your presence. But knowing when they’re likely to be alerted feels random. Sometimes you’ll need to sneak past in the shadows, but other times as long as you avoid running literally into them you’ll be invisible. During some sections you can throw cans to draw the guards away from your position, but that seems to be the only way of distracting them. With security’s slightly blasé commitment to their job you’d think the game would be easy, but certain actions trigger you to immediately fail. For example, the game allowed me to casually walk past a guard at a party even though it meant they saw me heading into a restricted area. 
But when I had the audacity to pick a lock out of his line of sight I was immediately punished. The game does encourage you to experiment to achieve the narrative goals, and thankfully certain trickier objectives aren’t required to be met to move onto the next narrative section. But while such perceived flexibility should be applauded, there needs to be less punishment for outside the box thinking. Long loading times means you’re often put off from stepping away from the obvious path. Picking a man’s pocket is a risky endeavour for example, as it requires you pressing the right button combination in a very short time period. Success means the main objective will be easier to meet, but failure means an immediate game over, losing any progress youd made since the last checkpoint and forcing you to stare at a loading screen for nearly a minute. Game loading is to be expected when moving between locations, but when the game is literally loading the exact same scene as you were previously playing its annoying. One particularly dramatic section sees your train station heist get interrupted by a mysterious individual and you have to flee from him. Because you’re left with no time to survey the surroundings and as you’re struggling with the controls, you’ll fail repeatedly during this section. At times I found myself getting caught by this enemy, literally within seconds. This then meant I had to wait 40 seconds for the same scene to reload before I could try again. What should have been an exciting 2 minute conclusion to a gameplay section, actually took me close to half an hour with most of that time watching the game load. Narrative focused games require player immersions, so taking you out of the experience for so long and so regularly is derailing.

So much of the game feels unfinished. It’s not just guards who will clip through walls, Celia will too. On occasion I had to restart a scene simply because I had fallen through a seemingly solid floor and reached an off map part of the stage. I wasn’t consciously looking for glitches; I simply was trying to play the game as intended. The graphics look initially stylish, but with no facial animations they’re reflective of the 2003 cell-shaded PS2 game ‘XIII’. Like so much in ‘Thief of Thieves’, the visuals fluctuate between great and mediocre. Great game mechanics introduced in one chapter will be forgotten by the next. Mediocre characters appear and disappear with no reason, and the potentially great narrative lacks any cohesion, overshadowed by mediocrity of irrelevant choices

If players are craving a game to fill the void left by the collapse of Telltale games, ‘Thief of Thieves’ isn’t it. The promised rich and engaging narrative is never really realised, and the novelty of the stylish visuals doesn’t make up for the lack of gameplay polish. As good as the comics may be this game version of ‘Thief of Thieves’ simply doesn’t measure up.


A copy of the game was provided by the distributor. They have not seen or had any influence over this post prior to publication.

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