Sneak-around-in-the-dark video games can be really fun, as they’re often chock-full of tense, challenging thrills. The best entries in this genre encourage gamers to slip in and out of a given quest without spilling a drop of blood. On the other hand, if structured poorly, a stealthy title can also be very frustrating. It can end up being characterless and clunky—as well as a bloody, explicit mess.
And in some cases—as with Square Enix’s reinvention of the acclaimed Thief franchise—a stealth game can be all of the above.
A Blown Robbery
This game’s burgler is a light-fingered footpad named Garrett. But Garrett, it turns out, is no run-of-the-mill pickpocket. No, he’s a seasoned pro, a master thief whose skills are always in demand in The City—a Victorian-era, steampunk-styled metropolis besieged by a plague and ruled with an iron fist by the corrupt Baron Northcrest. Suffice it to say that if you want to procure anything of value in this seedy, sallow burgh, you’ll need someone like Garrett to slip past its many locked windows, barred doors and sealed safes.
Garrett’s a consummate pilferer who’ll steal anything he can lay his mitts on without a care for its owner. But, perhaps unexpectedly, he’s also got a streak of decency woven into his otherwise criminal character. Garrett states up front that he’s averse to hurting or killing anyone if he can avoid it. Things get thrown into a tailspin, however, when he and an apprentice thief named Erin stumble upon an occult ceremony at the Baron’s mansion that literally blows up in their faces. When he comes to, Garrett discovers Erin is likely dead and that he’s been in an amnesia-like state for a year.
Those events propel him into a quest for answers: What happened to the spiritual cult he witnessed and the powerful gemstone they were chanting over? Is Erin really dead? What are the cultists’ unfolding plans, and how will they affect the plague that’s still raging? Finally, how does the power-hungry Baron (not to mention The City’s other powerful political figures) fit into this nefarious narrative?
Into the Shadows
That question-filled beginning lures players into a suspense-filled landscape. And, at least at first, Thief’s sneak-and-steal mechanics cast an alluring gameplay spell.
The City—with all its ornately crafted bell towers, manors and rooftops—offers a visually impressive milieu for exploration. In its shadowy crevices, players case their targets and plot the best way to slip unseen through the shadows and past guards. Even eavesdropping on townspeople’s conversations can open up new avenues, puzzles and prizes for our black-hooded antihero.
Initially, these challenges make for compelling gameplay. But it’s not always such “innocent” fun and games with this Thief. As the story progresses, it grindingly draws out. At times it feels as if the task of nabbing every silver spoon and knickknack you can get your sticky fingers on—activities that undeniably glorify casual thievery—is the only reason the game plods on.
On top of those pacing and philosophical problems, Thief increasingly packs plenty of M-rated baubles into its fat rucksack too.
First up, the shadowy spirituality lurking behind that cult and its magical gemstone is dark and ritualistic. As that thread unravels, it includes everything from ash-skinned monsters to an apparent human sacrifice to a healing “savior” character who wants to rule over a violent army of religious zealots.
But we’re hardly done yet when it comes to stuffing Garrett’s pockets with explicit content. In fact, we’re just getting started.
F-words, s-words and other profanities pop up in the streets and alleyways of this fantasy world. Players witness drunkenness and opium use among the suffering city’s desperate denizens. And Garrett makes his way through a brothel at one point. The ornate manor features paintings of fully nude women and peep holes through which passersby can watch what’s going on in the bedrooms. The illicit activities you see include realistic-looking topless prostitutes engaged in seduction, intercourse and sadomasochism.
Garrett, as I’ve said, is averse to death-dealing at the outset. And to its credit, the game encourages that attitude with point bonuses for completing missions sans violence, in addition to a combat system that focuses more on stealth than strength. It’s even possible to go through most of the quests without hurting a soul. But murderous actions are always a backup option when things go awry. Victims can be cut down with a blood-splashing slash from behind or with an arrow to the forehead. Surrounding scenes showcase other grotesquely violent images, such as dead bodies on a conveyor system with large meat hooks punched through them, bloody mob attacks, and a gore-splashing event featuring a zealot and his favorite meat cleaver.
Best entry in the genre, then? Hardly. This reboot’s crafty premise promises players a stealthy gaming challenge, to be sure. But paired with its dark spiritual twists, explicit sexual imagery, gory bloodletting and profane dialogue, Thief ultimately proves far less surefooted than you’d expect a stealthy master to be.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.