We have seen several successful stealth games over the years, ranging from the illustrious Tenchu series to a more modern take on espionage action featured in the Splinter Cell franchise. It’s cool and all to lurk in shadows and close in for silent takedowns, but what if there was a stealth action adventure involving no killing, one without any means to even initiate combat? Impossible – or boring, I hear you cry. Well, Finnish developers Rival Games show us how the feat is done with style when they were tasked with converting Robert Kirkman’s (of The Walking Dead fame) crime caper graphic novel series Thief of Thieves into a game.
The comics star a master thief Conrad Paulson, alias Redmond, torn between his legacy of being a thief of thieves and having a family to take care of. The game instead focuses on his protégé Celia, a young and self-assured Latin girl learning the ropes to enter the world of high stakes heists. The idea behind the comic is that it’s written like a TV series, with Kirkman serving as a showrunner and dealing story arcs to different writers. Likewise, the game is entirely written in-house by Rival Games, making it a part of the series of its own. The comic's regular artist Shawn Martinbrough has provided only concept illustrations, shown here and there in the menu screens, while the in-game graphics and the narrative art are entirely internally developed. The story is told through comic book panels with voice acting from a pretty renowned cast, including Fryda Wolff (female Ryder in Mass Effect: Andromeda) as Celia and Elias “Adam Jensen” Toufexis as one of the rival goons. The stylized, richly contoured in-game art brings the comic book action uncannily into life via fixed and panning camera angles, showing Celia, her accomplices and her opponents among diverse environments.
The game is divided into four volumes. The first two were available at the release and the third and the fourth chapter were published in the following weeks. The story kicks off when Celia lands on LA airport and is taken into a custody soon after, interrogated by FBI agent June Ikeda who’s keen to know Celia’s involvement during certain heists in Europe. The volumes fold out in flashbacks until the last fourth, detailing Celia’s journey from a botched robbery to join the ranks of professional thieves. The stakes get higher by each step in her education under Redmond’s supervising eye, also bringing forward the harsh reality of criminal life.
The heists start out by casing the joint, doing fieldwork to learn vantages and risks of each venue through observation and social engineering. The latter involves talking (based on information you have gathered from environments) and donning disguises. It all plays out much like a graphic adventure. The intuition vision shows possible courses of action while hotspots in the surroundings require various interactions. After a successful study, the heist is made into reality when the lights have gone out, and the only people awake are guards. Most of the game here requires sticking to shadows, waiting for opportunities to move and act. NPCs shuffle about and interact with each other, creating different situations for Celia to take advantage of. Running makes noise and old wooden floor can creak, but environmental sounds can also be used for distraction.
Apart from the first volume, Celia’s not alone in the field. Her accomplices - a hacker, a safe-cracker and muscles - have different skills which can be called upon to either make diversions or creating opportunities for certain actions. Tricks of the trade - lock picking, pickpocketing, safe-cracking and hacking - are simple minigames. They're not hard per se, but when someone’s tailing you, they’re enough to get your heart racing. If Celia is caught, there’s no way to fend off attackers and you’re sent to the latest checkpoint. It might sound like a nuisance but when you accept the rules herein, it’s all plausible. After all, it would break the foundation of exciting stealth gameplay if you were able to stun guards and other enemies.
The first volume, taking place in a luxury mansion with the goal of stealing a motorcycle from a Russian mobster, is almost like painting by numbers, tutoring the player with the various gameplay assets. It took roughly an hour to see the episode through, though most of that time was spent on fumbling with direct mouse and keyboard controls. It was only when I discovered that I can use the gamepad to take over Celia’s action things started going according to the plan. All well and good because in the second volume in Turin where Celia is introduced to her partners in crime, all means necessary must be used to get hands on a mysterious case the team is hired to steal. Executing the well-laid plan brings its own hiccups during the journey, though, taking the team to a moving Alpine train in the beginning of volume three where they race against another gang. A serious internal affair later, the fourth volume brings out every bit of the high stakes action the game has to offer, spanning over many exciting locales in London and requiring all tricks in the book. To make amends for the dubious subject matter, the people you steal from aren’t exactly upstanding citizens themselves, and by the end Celia & co. have a chance to play modern-day Robin Hoods too.
The constant commentary between Celia and her team about events and surroundings bring characters up front and the dialogue choices in the narrative sections let you play out your version of Celia. The options available in the gameplay encourage replayability as you can work out different ways of doings things. Would you rather brute yourself in or do some extra social engineering to achieve your goals? It’s entirely up to you. Sub-goals within missions aren’t obligatory but they can make quite a difference - some even to shocking results. Late in the third volume, a seemingly innocent choice of stealing extra hardware led to devastating events which I couldn’t see coming, the repercussions of which had to be lived with in the final volume (or canceled by replaying the chapter).
If a game like Hitman but involving no killing, presented in a comic book art and told through a Telltale-like episodic narrative arc sounds intriguing, Thief of Thieves is right up your alley. The game succeeds because it works within given framework. Apart from some inconsistencies in the gameplay (sometimes Celia would blunder around structures), there’s more than enough here to elevate the action of comics into the next level. You don’t only read about a crafty heist, you pull it off yourself! Simple yet diverse game mechanics, confident script, quality voice acting, quirky string music and elegant graphics all work towards making Thief of Thieves one cool crime caper. In the end, it leaves you wanting more of the same. Meanwhile, there’s a ton of replayability in trying out different solutions.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.