Garrett the Master Thief has had a long, ten year hiatus since his last outing in Deadly Shadows. You would think having a long time to gather your thoughts and hone your skills would do a Master Thief good. In reality, it made Garrett all the more rusty. It's a polarizing experience really, with moments teeming with brilliance quickly overshadowed by mission-breaking bugs, bad lip-syncing or overly frequent loading times.
Thief shines in the stealth department, which is a relief considering the game heavily relies on it. Sure, you can brute force your way through guards, knock them out from behind or send an arrow through their skull, but the brilliance of the game lies in figuring out a way around them. In that way, Thief's sneaky moments turn the game into a puzzle. Do you go out of your way to put out all lightsources and stay hidden, or do you take the high ground and sneak above unsuspecting guards? Do you use Garrett's various specialized arrows to put out fires around him, or start them with a fire arrow and cause a distraction long enough for him to slip by unnoticed? Choice is the keyword here, and Thief thankfully has a lot of it to offer. Each new location you come across will serve up a buffet of choices in how to tackle them.
Garrett's arsenal and move set make him a stealth force to be reckoned with. One of the handiest skills is Swoop, which allows Garrett to quickly move ahead a decent distance, making it one of the most indespensible skills when moving between shadows. Seriously, this ability is amazing. Thief also handles first-person running in one of the best ways I've seen thus far. It just seems natural. From the momentum Garrett gains as soon as you press it to actually navigating when running, the whole process seems super smooth.
However the silver linings end there. NPCs in Thief are just plain stupid. Don't get me wrong, I understand the need and importance of guards eventually stopping their pursuit in stealth games, but the way they do it in Thief just seems silly. Here's a scenario. A guard is patrolling near a burning fire. I need to sneak past him, but to do that, I need to dispose of the fire. After shooting my water arrow at it, he gets startled and goes on alert, giving me the chance to sneak by him while he's looking at the fire. That's great, but a mere seconds after, he relights the fire and goes back to his post, ignoring the arrow that's lodged into it. The fact that Garrett turns practically invisible when crouched in shadows also warrants for some silly NPC encounters. For instance, a guard can be standing literally in front of Garrett and not notice him thanks to being in the shadows. You don't even have to hide behind anything.
Like Deadly Shadows before it, Thief allows Garrett to explore the City in between missions. The City also holds numerous challenges, such as side missions to complete for Basso and other various clients. Garrett can break into various homes to steal valuables and increase his gold amount as well pick up a number of collectibles scattered around. As much as I initially liked the open-world like structure of the City, it wasn't long before I grew to loathe it. Getting from one place to the next or simply trying to reach the next mission can be extremely frustrating. Instead of the City being one seamless playground for Garrett, it's separated into various smaller districts, all requiring about 20-30 seconds of loading (played on the PlayStation 4). But it's not as simple as running to a door to get to the next district. These places are separated by windows or barricaded alleyways that you're never fully sure lead to the place you want to go. In one instance, I spent about 20 minutes trying to reach one end of the district and kept running around in circles because the most obvious path was always blocked.
This frustration is further enhanced by the fact that you don't always know what Garrett can or can't climb or jump across. There are a few visual cues that distinguish a scaleable wall, but there are also ledges that seem like they can be climbed on but can't. It's also frustrating when trying to run across a gap, hoping that Garrett will jump across, only to have him jump down into the streets instead. This makes traversing the town in any efficient matter non-existant. It's a shame, since like I previously stated, I absolutely love Garrett's running mechanics.
Yours for the taking
Continuing with the theme of archaic game design is the constantly repeating audio loops of NPCs in the city. If you stay in one place for more than 10 seconds, you'll hear the same conversation looping over and over with the same responses. It's maddening.
Then come the random bugs that completely ruin the immersiveness of the game. Cutscenes will randomly drop framerate, but the sound will still keep playing, ensuring that the rest of the cutscene is completely out of sync with the audio. Garrett also occasionally has various items stuck to his hands in cutscenes, like his bow. One of the worst bugs I encountered (which required me to completely restart a mission) was having an important NPC get stuck to an object. No matter what I did, he wouldn't budge. Goodbye, last 30 minutes.
Visually, Thief is a really good looking game. Sure it's mostly dark and not teeming with color, but it doesn't need to be. The architecture of the City looks absolutely believable. And those unique collectibles, like necklaces and rings look stunning as well.
The sound is a mixed bag. While the soundtrack is mostly great, it has a few odd tunes that would fit more in a horror game than here, though admittedly, there is one mission that takes place in a run down asylum. Voice acting is also mediocre at best. Garrett just doesn't sound likeable, though the supporting case, Basso especially, sound pretty great.
It might be a silly comparison, but Thief is sort of like the poor-man's Dishonored. Both have cities that are plagued with some sort of disease, and both rely on heavy stealth mechanics to keep the plot going. However, Dishonored had much better level design, voice acting, likeable characters and some sweet powers thrown in for good measure. Maybe it's because Thief is a cross-gen game, but many elements of Thief don't really scream next-gen. The amount of loading screens I had to endure during my playthrough was unbearable.
Some might be able to look past Thief's shortcomings and instead only focus on the moments of brilliance. However, I imagine long-time Thief fans hoping for Garrett's grand return might be somewhat disappointed.
[Reviewed on PlayStation 4]