When I’m looking for new games to play, I don’t usually start with sims. Like a lot of people, I grew up playing The Sims, Rollercoaster Tycoon, and my personal favorite, The Movies, but given a choice, I tend to prefer action-oriented narrative games or arcade-style experiences. When I was tapped to review Killers and Thieves, a project by one of the co-creators of The Banner Saga, I was on the fence to hear it was largely a sim, but the point-and-click heist sections appealed more to my sensibilities. Ironically enough, my expectations were flipped on their head: I found the sim to be interesting though not overly complex while the heists left me somewhat disappointed.
Killers and Thieves can basically be boiled down to two gameplay elements: management and heists. In management mode, you can recruit and train thieves, boost your income by shaking down shops and forcing them to fence goods you steal from heists, stake out high-value areas of the city, and initiate automatic missions. The success of these missions is dependent on a percentage counter that increases or decreases based on the experience of the thieves assigned to them. It’s a nice idea in theory, but each district only has one or two of these side missions, and if you fail them they disappear from your map. Since the gold and experience they offer as a reward is so hard to come by without grinding heists, it makes the most sense to only put your best thieves on them to ensure success, even though this leads to imbalance when your strongest thieves keep getting stronger while your weakest thieves can’t get any experience to level up.
The second gameplay element in Killers and Thieves is Heist. Heists are performed occasionally in main story missions, but you can also initiate them at any time from the world map, taking up to four thieves with you. Upon entering a heist, the game randomly generates six buildings full of peasants, guards, and goodies for you to dupe, kill, and steal, respectively. All the buildings are dark to start with. Entering a room lights it up along with any adjacent rooms. These rooms will stay lit as long as the door or window leading to it is open. Visibility is your worst enemy: closing a door blocks others from seeing you, but you also can’t monitor their patrols anymore, so they might randomly barge in while you’re snooping around in their giant golden chest. Certain abilities can alleviate things. Vigilance automatically reveals adjacent rooms even if the door is closed and Eavesdrop does more or less the same thing, except you have to press a button while hiding to activate it. The only thing is, each thief only has three ability slots, so you have to weigh the pros and cons of their loadouts.
Sounds like an interesting gameplay mechanic right? Well, kind of. See, each thief can only learn three abilities total, meaning if you fill up their slots with less useful abilities like Acrobatics (which allows them to jump across rooftops, a skill I never used once), they can’t ever unlearn it, so the only reason to keep them around is as fodder for automatic missions that require thieves with niche abilities. The title isn’t joking, this is a game of Killers and Thieves, by which I mean, the only two useful “classes” are fighters with Knife Fighting, Critical Hit, and maxed Strength and Skill, and thieves with Lockpick, Prowl, and either Vigilance or Appraisal. Lockpick is just a flat out broken skill. After the first couple of districts, there’s no point sending anyone into a building without Lockpick since one locked door on the first floor can halt your entire progress. Sometimes you can use Climb to climb up the side of a building and bypass a locked door, but there’s still no guarantee you won’t keep hitting more locks–not to mention, any chests you come across might be locked too.
What Killers and Thieves expects you to do is use your thieves collaboratively to overcome these obstacles. Maybe while one thief is picking a lock, another one is standing watch with Eavesdrop. Maybe while one thief is raiding a room in one building, another one is sneaking through the next one over. Sadly I just didn’t find this cooperative gameplay feasible. The game doesn’t provide a lot of tools to queue up actions. You can move them at the same time, but that’s about it. It also tries to auto-hide your thieves when you switch control, which is sort of useful, but if you set a thief with Prowl to run to another room, then switch to another thief, the first one will enter his slow sneak mode. There’s an active pause feature, but you can’t even use this to cue up any actions except for hiding.
Then there’s the undercooked combat. It has a lot of problems, but the biggest one is that it is never useful in standard heists. The instant you pull out your knife, your stealth meter is set to zero, so any guard that spots you will immediately attack, and there’s no way to refill stealth when it’s been lost. If you’re on the top floor of a building and fight a guard, you might have to fight half a dozen more on the way down, but even with maxed Strength and Skill, one fighter can survive maybe 3 or 4 fights, and that’s pushing it. If their health gets too low, they can always surrender, but then they lose all the goods they stole and face lengthy prison sentences, so what’s the point? Watching combat is a pretty dull affair too. After initiating combat, prepare to watch guards strike at you seven times in a row before you swing at them once. Fighting is only necessary for a handful of story missions, but these are glorified stat checks at best, and progress-halting dice rolls at worst.
For example, one midgame mission in Killers and Thieves tasks you with killing three peasants. Here’s how this plays out: like normal, six random buildings spawn. They are very tall buildings. If you’re lucky, the first building might have all three peasants hanging out close to the first floor. More likely, they are spread out near the middle or tops of the buildings, and some of them may not have any at all. So let’s say you climb all the way to the top of a building, past long halls of guards to find a single peasant. You kill them. Your stealth is now set to zero, but you somehow have to exit this building and either move on or escape from the level entirely, hoping that the next thief gets lucky. You could bring along 3-4 fighters to increase your odds, but this mission also gave me bad locked-door spawns, so you either need to give up one spot for a Lockpicker or teach Lockpick to a fighter, which requires a whopping five level-up points.
So where does that leave you? Grinding heists repeatedly for experience and gold to replenish your quickly depleting money supply. The thing is, thieves are awarded experience based on how much loot they take out of a level, and, as I’ve already covered, fighting types are generally not the best equipped for stealing things. They’ll need high Strength and Skill for the endgame missions, so I wouldn’t blame anyone for neglecting their Stealth stat. So regardless of whether or not you can micromanage teamwork between a Lockpicker and a Fighter, chances are they can probably only nab a couple of things before they have to escape. It doesn’t help that heists can take fifteen to twenty minutes and they all look and play out exactly the same way with no variation except sometimes the buildings are taller (which just serves to draw them out longer). It became physically draining to grind them towards the end of the game.
I can recognize that there is a way to play Killers and Thieves optimally, but it requires an almost prescient foreknowledge to meet the strict requirements it asks of you. If you know the best loadouts and how to manage experience, then you can maybe enjoy the sim component with minimal grinding. The heists, after all, aren’t really bad, they’re just repetitive. However, if you deviate even the slightest or try to experiment with different combinations of abilities, you’ll end up in a loop of repeating heists ad infinitum, at which point you might as well just start over. That’s not a fun prospect four hours in.
The plot was pretty difficult to follow too. The writing does a decent job of portraying a scene through words alone, but I had a tough time keeping track of the certain characters, and it also didn’t help that the results screens for missions kept booting me to the Barracks screen before I could read what happened next. I did get a kick out of the running gag about the unkillable Morys Pratt though.
Visually, Killers and Thieves shares a lot with its sister series The Banner Saga. I liked the painted artwork for the recruits and the primary color system to differentiate thieves (blue) from guards (red) and peasants (yellowish). Only a few cutscenes have background art, and sometimes that art is reused in cutscenes where it really makes no sense, but it looks good nevertheless.
On the technical side, I faced a few bugs. Nothing game-breaking, but still annoying. Once, a thief got attacked by a guard while he was picking a lock, but both characters got stuck in their animations, so the only option I had left was to surrender. Another time, a guard chased me down a hall and my thief climbed out a window. At the exact same moment, though, the guard triggered a capture on my thief. The guard walked away as if he was escorting my thief away while my thief remained stuck on the ledge. I closed the game before I could see if it ultimately resulted in a soft lock, but it might be worth trying to recreate for bug-testing purposes.
When I eventually beat Killers and Thieves after about thirteen hours including resets, I was caught off-guard because the map made me think it would be a much bigger, longer game. Despite the abruptness of the ending, I’m glad it ended where it did because any more grinding would have only soured me on it further. As it stands, Killers and Thieves is an average game, maybe a little above or below depending on your experience, but definitely not awful or great by any stretch. There’s a great deal of promise under the hood, but it’s like a pristine engine with no oil in it. With deeper simulation mechanics, more to do on the world map, and better implementation of skills and real-time-with-pause mechanics, this could have been something special, but right now it feels semisolid.
Killers and Thieves was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.More About This Game
Killers and Thieves may be good in small doses, but the heists are boring and repetitive and the management component, though neat in theory, doesn't provide a lot to do.
- Amazing Artwork
- Heists Fun at Higher Levels
- Good Income Management System
- Repetitive Grinding of Heists
- Slow, Boring Combat
- Too Few Side Missions