How do you keep adventure games fresh? How do you push the limits of point and click puzzle solving? Simple. Have multiple solutions to each puzzle. That's the philosophy behind Thief of Thieves: Season One, a new stealth adventure game based on publisher Skybound Entertainment's Thief of Thieves comic series. The game takes form as an episodic heist adventure with a heavy emphasis on stealth mechanics, lockpicking minigames, and social manipulation. While Season One releases on July 16, it only includes two of the season’s four episodes. The remaining episodes will release in late July if the schedule holds, and a full review will be available upon the season's completion. For now, let’s dive into the first two chapters.
If you’ve never read Thief of Thieves, don’t worry. While a few references pop up at the beginning of the story, there are clear explanations for the heists themselves and the character’s motivations. What’s not so easy to grasp is the narrative structure. Celia, the apprentice of a master thief, is returning home after a big score in Italy. On her way through customs, The FBI "randomly selects" Celia for an interview. This interview between Celia and an FBI agent serves as a frame for the entire overarching story.
Heists are told through flashbacks. During the first flashback, there's a fake flashback leading into a real flashback. It’s a story in a story in a story. The result is a hot mess of narrative structure. Everything Celia tells the FBI agent in the framing device is a lie. However, the actual story reveals itself through those lies, leading to some narrative confusion. It’s clear why they did this. If the gameplay is a flashback, but the story is in the present, the interviewer can change her responses and evidence based on how you played the game. That’s kind of neat, but it only works when you botch the job. If you do everything correctly, she has no evidence to present and the overarching story feels like a weakness rather than a strength.
The first heist is superb. It’s a quick mix of casing and execution, filled with interesting and impactful (though admittedly limited) choices. There are a lot of moving parts to keep track of. The guards and their knowledge of you, passwords, bystanders, entry to the event, etc. It’s tightly wound, putting an emphasis on traditional adventure game puzzling. The stealth sections are a spice to mix things up and make for some tense moments. If the entire game was like the first chapter, Thief of Thieves would be a welcome addition to any adventure game collection.
Unfortunately, the second chapter is both poorly designed and poorly executed. So much so that it will suck away any enjoyment you had from the first heist. It’s difficult to name a single good thing about the second heist. Unlike the first episode, your choices don’t matter and you're railroaded into multiple chase sequences. Instead of using stealth mechanics as a spice to move through specific set pieces, it becomes the main course. Thief of Thieves’ stealth mechanics only work in short bursts. It’s like a movie monster; the longer you look at it, the more you notice it’s just a guy in a rubber mask.
The guard's AI is abysmal, bouncing between senselessness and hypersensitivity. They also have selective hearing. The whine of a forklift on a silent night doesn’t bother them (even when your allies warn you it will attract a lot of attention), but they’ll instantly perk up at the sound of a rolling soda can. Of course, it doesn’t matter if a guard sees you. While enemies use horrendous rubberbanding to close the gap, they can’t actually catch Celia unless she runs into a wall. Because the game is so buggy, guards are just as likely to magically fly into space as they are to make a successful tackle.
While the game is buggier than a buggy baby buggy bumper and generally suffers from poor enemy programming (especially the magic sound-seeking extendo-cameras who automatically alert every guard on the map to your location, even when there’s nobody watching the footage), the real pain comes from the minigames. At least with keyboard and mouse, every single minigame (lockpicking, hacking, and safecracking) is an awful, awkward agony to complete. This is partially caused by unoptimized controls, partially because of bugs, and partially because of bad puzzle design. Again, this isn’t so bad in the first heist because lockpicks sparingly spice up gameplay.
The finale of the second heist illustrates everything wrong with Thief of Thieves. It’s an experience so buggy, inept, and unpleasant it calls into question the structural integrity of the entire game. In the story, Celia is being stalked through a maze of fence and pipe. In the game, the bad guy stands perfectly still repeating the same four quips. He's completely incapable of noticing Celia when she's only inches from his face. It’s a stealth section wearing a name tag that says “Chase Sequence.” Even with perfect stealth, scripted sequences have big bad bursting through wooden barriers like a rampaging rhino. But wait, there's more! Enemy AI is so incompetent, it frequently and inexplicably gives up and walks off screen for a coffee break after cornering Celia and declaring “nowhere left to run!”
In its current state, Thief of Thieves: Season One is a mess of bugs, poor puzzle design, messy controls, bad camera, grotesque AI, and railroaded outcomes. The first level is excellent, but it’s a façade. The stealth mechanics are rough, but you won’t realize that until you spend more time with them. The first heist gives you just enough to get in, make a few choices, have a little interaction with the weaker elements, then get out. The second heist makes those weaker elements the star of the show. When the curtains pull back, we realize the AI has been huffing ether backstage.
Maybe the second half will improve things, but we can now see through the façade and we’re sensitive to its weaknesses. It will take a much greater emphasis on puzzles and impactful choices to set things right. Undoing the damage caused by the second heist is not an insurmountable task, but it is a tall order to fill.
Our Thief of Thieves preview was conducted on Steam with a code provided by the developer. An Xbox One release is also in the cards. Look forward to a full review upon release of the full game.