Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and the other Looney Toons directors created something powerful back in the mid-20th century. Their children, like the irascible bastard Bugs Bunny, were something to behold, but their real gift to the world was cartoon logic. Cartoon logic is the anti-Aesop. The Greek fabulist used animals to teach lessons about the way the world really works. That’s not how you use crazy animal people! The cartoon logic of Looney Toons flips the world on its head, tossing the laws of civil society and physics right out the window. Zoot suit-wearing wolves chase women at burlesque shows and ducks kick the crap out of hunters in boxing rings. That’s the magic of cartoon logic, wringing joy out of chaos and the absurd.
At its best, Sly Cooper: Thieves In Time is an engine fueled by the mad logic of those classic cartoons. Dig this: There’s a family of master thief raccoons, and you’re placed in control of its scion, Sly Cooper. You also play as Sly’s pals, who include his love interest—a policewoman cross between Rosie Perez and Disney’s Robin Hood—as well as a paraplegic genius turtle and a pink hippopotamus. This motley crew travels through history to help Sly’s ancestors fend off a megalomaniac art-thief skunk.
The action can be as golden as the premise. One early scenario casts you as sushi chef Riochi Cooper, sneaking through the rafters of a geisha house in Tokugawa-era Japan. The heist demonstrates the silky pleasure of moving through Thieves In Time. You can’t just jump onto a ceiling fan, for instance—leaping and gaining purchase are two separate moves that have to flow from one another, and your character does a little twirl in the air as you balance. This fluidity lends these strange scenarios an alluring grace. Once Riochi turns off the security system, Murray the hippo swoops in to swipe a geisha costume, but to escape, he has to woo the guards with a sexy dance number. This comes complete with timed button tapping—à la Guitar Hero—and a song that sounds like a Tears For Fears B-side.
Most of the game is as beautifully weird as that scenario, and while it lacks the subversiveness of classic Looney Toons, it makes up the difference in sheer variety. Thieves In Time is always giving the gang something else to do. If you’re not prowling around the open areas that make up the five period settings you visit—the other four are an Old West town, a medieval English fiefdom, an ice-age valley, and ancient Persia—you’re controlling a little tank in a little computer-hacking game or beefing up a Cro-Magnon ancestor in an ’80s style training montage.
The thing is, there’s sometimes too much to do in Thieves In Time and not enough of a point to it all. When the gang’s helping Tennessee Kid Cooper back in the Old West, Bentley the turtle scouts ahead to place a homing beacon at a mine’s entrance so that Murray can find it. Once Bentley gets there, giant scorpions attack and Murray shows up to mow them down with a machine gun. If Murray knew how to get there all along, why the hell did we have to muddle through the chore of setting up a homing beacon? Why did any of this happen? It would be like if Elmer Fudd suddenly realized he needed to pick up dry cleaning in the middle of a Bugs cartoon and we had to watch him fumble through his wallet for the ticket.
It would be one thing if this were an isolated incident, but Thieves In Time is a big game, and its bloat threatens to overwhelm its weirder, more lithe moments. The middle stretch in the ice age is especially malformed, with only a handful of boring missions and a cramped, slapdash valley to explore. The game recovers in its back half. Sir Galleth Cooper’s medieval town is a highlight, with plenty of towers to scale and an army of robot wolves whose dry British small talk is hilarious. (“I was at the beach all weekend with the kids.” “Ugh, I hate sand.”)
The game’s tottering imbalance just goes to show what those classic cartoons had that Thieves and many other modern games don’t: pristine editing. Put another way, Thieves breaks Chuck Jones’ classic rule. Jones said, “The whole essence of good drawing—and of good thinking, perhaps—is to work a subject down to the simplest form possible and still have it believable for what it is meant to be.” Sly Cooper’s power comes from a deep well of cartoon logic, a world where anything can happen and the laws of the universe are just playthings. But without the keen timing of a great cartoon comedy, that power is just so much wasted potential.