I suspect Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2 and Thief will be paired to each other for quite a long time. Both are revivals to beloved franchises, released within a week or so of each other, and both to mixed critical reception. I enjoyed my time with Lords of Shadow 2, undoubtedly flawed as it was, and itís the same with Thief.
Thiefís problems are fairly numerous and spread themselves through every part of the game, most infuriating of which is the ambient sound levels being all over the place, so a conversation occurring outside drowns out the one right in front of you. Then thereís Thiefís city, Thief isnít quite an open world, instead itís sections of city patched together with loading screens. Itís a missed opportunity, Thiefís city looks great, suitably dank and oppressed, grimy and littered with shadows. Unfortunately itís broken up, with loading screens between districts and no easy way to get between them. Guards are stationed at every entrance and exit, all on the look out for you regardless of your behaviour. It means thereís no flow through the city, it feels like separate areas, completely unrelated to each other.
To pass from one area of the city to another itís rare youíll get to use a gate, theyíve been blocked off by the watch guards, so instead you must squeeze through gaps (to trigger a loading screen) or climb through windows. The problem with the windows is that they donít look any different from any other openable windows. Some windows can be opened for side missions, some just to loot a few items from a bedsit, but some are your means of getting through to a different part of the city, you pretty much just have to memorise these.
The main city hub isnít really what Thief is about, sure thereís short side missions and collectables dotted about, but anything more meaningful is set in its own area. The main missions are fairly large, it may be a huge manor house or an asylum, but theyíre separate areas that youíll never need to revisit unless you want to replay the chapter. It does mean that they can be quite thematically different though, one of the early missions is set in a brothel, and while that isnít too dissimilar to the manor house already mentioned, it is very different to the asylum and its depths. It means you can go from a mission focused on political intrigue to something bordering on a horror game.
Missions are scored by how you approach them, but thereís 2 things that become apparent as you progress through the main story. One is that I became better at manipulating Thiefís systems and limitations, rather than using the tools provided to play how I wanted. It might sound like an esoteric complaint, but compare how empowered you felt playing Dishonoured (and to a lesser extent Deus EX HR) to how you just deal with a situation in the most effective manner here. Take one of the few boss fights for example, I knew how I wanted to play it, but putting it in to action is another matter. Sometimes itís just easier to incapacitate every guard in your way than it is to use the environment, or vice versa, sometimes thereís a very easy way to just bypass a tricky looking fight, you donĎt feel creative.
The initial experience of playing Thief isnít helped that it doesnít really give you all the information you need. I donít remember being told that I could buy weapons and upgrades, nor was I ever encouraged to revisit a particular NPC and Ďlevel upí. Itís another area of the game that feels like it needed another pass, that an extra few months might have fixed.
The other thing thatís apparent from the main mission, the story is terrible. Itís never really explained what the Ďprimalí is, but itís a blue Ďthingí that has its essence in a stone, powerful people want it to take control of the city. The power corrupts people, turning them in to REC like monsters, or it can cure people, I think, Iím not sure, but I do know that Garrett is unknowingly tasked with recovering it. This feels a bit redundant, really the thing that keeps you motivated is rescuing Erin, a fellow thief, itís tracking her down that leads you to all the interesting places.
While the plot being both redundant and leftfield is obviously a problem, itís a problem exasperated by how itís told. Itís never particularly clear who some characters are, with important people only fleetingly making an appearance. The game sort of feels like youíve joined after itís already started, thereís a presumed knowledge about the politics of the city and Garrett. Then thereís the cut scenes themselves, they donít quite mesh with what youíve just played, like thereís 10 seconds missing. Itís as though the people handing the in-game story didnít have any contact with the people making the cut scenes.
Hereís the thing though, I completed everything in Thief. I played it for countless hours, beating all the side quests, client missions, and the main story, and I really enjoyed it. I loved the look of the game, the tone of it, yes the city is too broken up, guards respawning when you enter an area is tedious, and the stuttering framerate whenever you enter an new area is ugly. But as I learnt to manipulate the systems, to be more aggressive, and as I increased Garrettís skills, the game just kind of clicked for me.
Itís that rare situation where you know a game is broken, and Thief is, in several ways, but will vehemently defend the game against its critics. They arenít wrong though, itís a mess, it feels rushed, cobbled together to meet a deadline despite being years in development. Itís why while I can already envisage Thief taking a spot on my end of year list, itís also getting the score you see below, for whatever reason it clicked with me, even if critically I know itís broken