System: Switch (eShop)
Release date: May 19, 2019
Developer: Noble Muffins
Publisher: Forever Entertainment
Its 2 AM, it’s dark, and I’m trespassing on my neighbor’s property (again). Quiet as a mouse, I delicately paw my waist until I’m met with the familiar shape of my flashlight. In the interest of decibels I apply as little pressure as I can and like magic (or torches), the room is illuminated in a divine glow. “Remarkable”, I mutter to myself. “Everything I stole three hours ago has already been replaced.” As I slowly survey the room I’m immediately drawn to the prize catch – a flat screen TV. “That’s a flat screen TV,” my internal monologue confirms. As I stand there slack jawed and aghast, I fail to take heed of my surroundings for a single crucial moment – I’ve been spotted. How could I have been this stupid? I had surveyed the house, taken note of the tenant’s routines and I was absolutely certain they wouldn’t be home until 4. None of that matters now. I gather myself momentarily before making a run for it.
As I leap for the front door, I accidentally take my crowbar out. Typical, the pressure must be getting to me. I put the crowbar back in my pouch, before accidentally taking it out a second time. Sirens begin to fill the air around me, accompanied solely by red and blue lights flickering over a jet black horizon. As I cross the threshold an invisible hand stops me dead in my tracks. “What now?” I cry, out loud this time, as this is the fourth instance in which this has happened today. Jumping repeatedly on the spot sets me free and before I know it I’m sprinting toward my car. I fling the driver side door open, dive into the front seat and accidentally open my lockbox instead of running from the police. Then in a cruel twist of fate, I’m once again seized by an invisible deity, the ethereal spirit of Un-Pole-Eeshed. I’m frozen, unable to move a muscle, and just like that, everything fades to black. It’s over.
That’s basically how about 75% of my home intrusions played out in Thief Simulator – as fundamentally gnarled executions of otherwise bulletproof plans. It’s a pattern I came in contact with fairly regularly over the 15 hours I spent with the game, and one that wears thin extraordinarily quickly. Thief Simulator riffs on the boatload of simulator games we’ve seen hit Steam over the course of the past decade by narrowing in on one job description and sticking to it vehemently. The upshot to this, at least on paper, is that to a large demographic of people being a criminal is more exciting than being a train driver. The downside however, is that developer Noble Muffins has failed to offer up nor the substance or polish required to keep you engaged for more than an hour.
After you’ve gotten a good laugh out of the game’s main menu and its miserly resolution, the game immediately drops you into a nondescript suburb and introduces you to Vinny, your sole contact throughout the game. Vinny, in his best Sicilian gangster voice, explains that you’ve been bailed out of prison by the Lombardi’s, that you are now indebted to them, and then goes on to describe how crowbars work. After a brief tutorial, you’re given a safe-house and a contact at a local pawn shop – affectionately named “PAWN SHOP”. From there, Vinny proceeds to call you at what I can only describe as the most inopportune and unprofessional times a gangster could get in touch with you (i.e whilst you’re robbing a house in the middle of the night). Despite there being nothing that resembles an actual story on offer here, Vinny’s calls are just about the only human element I can attribute to Thief Simulator. Everyone else you come across has about as much personality as a CRT monitor.
The general flow of gameplay rarely deviates from a set pattern. Open up the computer in your safe-house and browse one of four websites to buy lock picks, hints and jobs. You then sneak into houses, steal stuff, and sell it. On occasion you’re offered specific tasks through Vinny and your in-game PC, such as breaking someone’s windows, stealing a specific item, or smashing up a toilet for an immediate payout. You’re free to engage in any available bad deed at any given time which is welcome, but you’ll soon find yourself with diminishing returns if you stay out in the field for too long. As your backpack fills up with ill-gotten goods you’re left with little to do other than sell your stuff at the pawn shop or on the gangster black market. This part of the game should feel rewarding, as you offload your spoils to free yourself up for more deviation. Unfortunately though, the loading times and overall clumsiness of each and every mechanic make this feel like an absolute chore.
You see, Thief Simulator only appears to adhere to its sim roots at the most inconvenient times. While your surveying properties to break into you can tag tenants if you see them, coating them in a white outline that’s visible through walls. Like any half decent game mechanic it’s straightforward enough and doesn’t get in the way too often. Getting into your car, on the other hand, is a three stage process that’s caked in repetition. You must look at the door, open it, look at the seat, sit in it, crane your neck around, and then turn on the ignition. You’ll do this probably 100 times over the course of Thief Simulator and frankly, it’s hellish. Stealing heavy items is another doozy, involving a similar ballet of opening your trunk, placing an item, closing it, opening it, etcetera etcetera. It’s the kind of tedium you associate with the worst the sim genre has to offer. To be fair, a lot of these issues could be overlooked if the game’s performance wasn’t so bad. Whilst tenants, police and other NPCs seem totally brain-dead, the frame rate appears sentient with a mind completely of its own. It doesn’t seem to matter where you are or what you’re doing. It might run well, or it might chug for days – it all depends on how it feels I guess.
Performance often gets in the way of the game’s bread and butter, too. Once you’re actually in a house, controller response is absolutely all over the place. There’s a meaty dead zone at the center of the analog sticks that had me infinitely nudging my cursor over small items in an attempt to pick them up. Couple that with a dodgy frame rate and you’ve got a recipe for boredom. Every aspect of the game suffers from this – even the lock-picking minigames that have been ripped straight out of The Elder Scrolls IV and V. For a game centered around being as delicate as possible with your surroundings, there were far too many occasions where I was battling the performance, or jamming buttons to get loose of rogue geometry that had ensnared me like an invisible bear trap.
Outside of general polish, the game is beset by a handful of nasty, game-breaking bugs. While surveying properties, you’re given a handy tool-tip on screen that shows whether the house is empty or not. This might seem like a god-given gift for any good thief, and it is, but only when it decides to function as intended. You’ll often find yourself unexpectedly met with an NPC that’s frozen, half stuck in the nearest wall when the aforementioned tool-tip is saying, “Everyone’s out. Go nuts buddy!” It’s honestly infuriating given the time it can take to survey and setup for some of the larger, more well guarded properties in the game and it can do away with almost 30 minutes of work in some cases. Thief Simulator also has very strong feelings about you opening the inventory/quest log whilst in your car. Each and every time I did this, the game locked up and refused to accept any input whatsoever. It wasn’t frozen as such, as the world kept slowly dredging by in my peripheral vision, but I was left with nothing to do other than exit to the home menu and restart, bringing an abrupt end to my time in the soupy looking suburbs of Thief Simulator.
It’s easy to poke fun at the myriad of “sim” games that have flooded the market over the past several years. These hyper focused anomalies have often felt closer to Excel spreadsheets than actual games, but those most interested in the subject matter have usually had nothing but good things to say about them. If that truly is the case, then maybe I should get in touch with some petty criminals and show them Thief Simulator, because to a simple law abiding citizen like me, it just seems like a pretty bad game.
Thief Simulator review copy provided by Forever Entertainment for the purposes of this review.