This is the fourth in a series of 52 posts. Find all of the posts in the series here.
Thief, aka Thief 2014, Thief 4, Thi4f, and so on, is a -mostly- first person stealth-action game from Eidos Montreal, and published by Square Enix. It’s important to note that this particular Thief is a revival and reboot of the classic Thief series, and exists in the same universe, if not several hundred years into the future. Players control (a different) Garrett, a master thief and leather-clad, eyeliner-wearing Batman of the night, who loses his young friend and protege Erin after she falls into the middle of a supernatural ritual. The resulting blast renders Garrett unconscious for an entire year, but subsequently grants him the power of the Primal in his right eye, called ‘Focus’, which gives him the ability to see hidden traps, slow time, and remain undetected, depending on how the player chooses to spec the power.
I feel as though that, when it comes to trying to review Thief, I’m in a position that few others seem to be. I never played the original series.
Let me back up.
Before I am tarred and feathered over it, I want to note that I am quite familiar with the original Thief series, the differences between games, and the nature of gamplay. I’ve played a little bit of Thief: The Dark Project, and am, in general, familiar with the storyline. Perhaps the fact that I’m not entirely steeped in the Thief culture made it more difficult for me to review Thief as separate from one of my recent stealth-action favorites, Dishonored, as opposed to comparing it to the original series outright. To that end, I should warn that I likely have a more positive outlook than most people did, though I hope to still be a decent judge of its merits.
In its own right, Thief is an incredibly fun game to play. I was impressed, in particular, by the game’s customizable difficulty mode, where players are able to turn on and off different aspects of gameplay, such as parts of the Focus ability, which allows old fans to play much in the similar style that they might have in the earlier games. I played through the game on the traditional ‘Thief’ difficulty level, which I imagine to be akin to ‘normal,’ though in future playthroughs, I would very much like to customize the game to better reflect the abilities I used or didn’t use, and hopefully create a worthwhile replay experience.
Much in the similar style of Dishonored (which I will inevitably compare this to), Thief is broken up into individualized, contained missions, which can be replayed again and again at any point during the main course of the story and afterward, as well as smaller–also contained–Client Jobs, which grant Garrett some extra cash and chances to complete often more easily attainable thieving challenges (compared to mission-based ones), such as remaining undetected, performing set amounts of knockouts or pickpockets, or picking up all the available loot. It makes the game more accessible, and grants the player the ability to go back and pick up collectibles they might have missed, meaning they don’t have to load old saves or start the game over just to get their related achievements. Each mission, whether of the main storyline or of the side quests, can be found in The City–the main hub world of the Thief game with its own puzzles and secrets to unlock.
Of all the things that make Thief worthwhile, it is the incredible attention to atmosphere and to music that shines, in particular, in Chapter 5: The Forsaken.
I hate horror games. Hate them. I hate it when things pop out at me, I hate it when I have to run for my life from one-hit-kill horror monsters, but I love, love, atmospheric horror. I love creepy, I love dark and deserted. I like feeling like something is watching me, but I like it a lot more when that thing, whatever it might be, doesn’t come screaming into my face when I least expect it. I love lore and mythos, superstition and magic. I am fond, in this right, of games such as Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs or Dear Esther for the strength they have in that kind of storytelling.
The Forsaken takes place in an abandoned insane asylum, go figure, that is implied to once have housed the original Garrett, and is a place that the current Garrett believes Erin might have been held at one time. Bearing an intensely powerful magic, Erin’s torture turned the asylum uninhabitable and its patrons into horrible Freaks, and left the entire place reeking of a strange, supernatural power. The Freaks–the real danger present in the level–appear only at the end, in the prison levels, while the majority of the level is meandering through the empty halls of Moira Asylum and all of its apparitions and odd poltergeists.
It took me five hours to complete the Moira Asylum level. I was terrified.
To my chagrin, there were indeed, very few jump scares, excluding one at the start of the level and one in the middle, and instead, the scares came from a terribly twisted atmosphere. Ghosts peering around from behind corners, mannequins and wheelchairs moving of their own accord. The Freaks were themselves horrifying, but were a danger only to a noisy thief, and easily bested with the right arrows and a smart shot. This level is the pinnacle of atmosphere, a truly inspiring take at excellent horror, one attuned to fear and less to scares. The music mixing is key in this level as well; indeed, curiously, I found I was the safest when things were silent, music coaxing a particular sense of dread. Mixed with disembodied voices, distant banging, cries of crows outside of the windows, and my own footfalls on broken glass and dusty floors, I expected more jump scares than I received and yet I still think of some dread when I imagine attempting to replay the game, expecting that same oppressive terror.
Criticism of Thief is rampant and widespread, and considering that, I don’t know if it’s my job to discuss it here. In particular, I had trouble with audio layering–several instances where guards would start over conversations they were still in the process of having until two simultaneous tracks were playing at once. There were a few issues, as well, with textures failing to load or loading incorrectly, though these were hardly gamebreaking. Traversing The City tended to be a little tedious at times, as it’s segmented into districts that require loading screens between each one that tended to make trips to turn in Client Jobs across the map incredibly time-consuming. It’s unclear to me why, especially on the PlayStation 4, everything would be so bounded and compartmentalized even with the available processing power, but I imagine there is an answer, even if I don’t have it.
My criticism, then, is that Thief feels a little bit like missed potential. It has a story that is fairly questionable, moments of brilliance in design, such as with Moira Asylum, and definite low points. Boss fights were questionably simple. The game is beautiful, absolutely gorgeous. The lore is fantastic, but lacking, though collectibles and interactivity in The City made for a very content-wealthy game. At times, the game was genuinely funny, particularly with the running joke about Garrett’s rather silly leather get-up. On its own, it’s a decent game, fun to play, absolutely, and fairly low-commitment. As a Thief game, as I know it, it doesn’t quite hit the mark and instead its levels seem peeled directly from Dishonored, whose own levels were peeled directly from earlier Thief games, in a strange cycle of thieves and stealth. Thief has been on sale for as low as $10 recently, though having just released in February, and it’s clear that everyone else has given up on Thief already.
I haven’t given up on Thief. It remains one of those games, the kind I talk about often, one that isn’t the best but is still very fun, especially with an attuned critical eye. It’s not impossible to enjoy a game with flaws and I think Thief is very much worth love and attention. There’s much to get lost in, much to find, many challenges to complete. It might be better suited for fans new to the series, or for fans who enjoy a well-crafted atmosphere and are perhaps not entirely picky about their stealth experience. It’s far from Metal Gear, but still in excess of fun, of charm, and of some masterfully designed levels and setpieces that kept me playing all the way to the end. In the end, Thief isn’t game of the year, but it’s certainly worth a look, perhaps even more so now at its sale price.