Ten years is a long time to stay in the shadows.
With "Thief," the cult stealth series steps back into the light and finds the gaming landscape transformed. Its pupils shrink, looking as awkward as protagonist Garrett's. They do adjust — but not without some discomfort.
In designing Garrett's long-awaited return, Eidos Montreal struggles with a dilemma: To persist or adapt, to preserve the old ways or embrace the new, to stick with what worked in 2004 or attempt what works in 2014.
The result plays a lot like Arkane Studios' terrific "Dishonored," which appears to have influenced the new "Thief" about as much as Looking Glass Studios' turn-of-the-millennium games influenced Arkane.
The groundwork is the same as ever: Garrett skulks around fairly open levels, staying out of light and off hard surfaces, lifting whatever loot he can and putting a few guards to sleep in the process.
But the catacombs and rooftops he haunts in "Thief" are a little more linear. His takedowns trigger slick animations and he's prone to trippy, story-driven dream sequences. Garrett can even swoosh from one spot to another now, and though the ability isn't as overpowered as blink-teleporting in "Dishonored," it still makes sneaking more of a breeze than ever.
"Thief's" debt to the AAA gaming bank is even broader than "Dishonored." Garrett now takes uninvolved third-person ledge trips. He picks locks via analog stick minigames. And, sure enough, he finds time to spy some naked boobs in a brothel level.
Borrowed as they are, some of these changes improve the series. The more stylish takedowns with Garrett's trusty blackjack make fisticuffs riskier than swift guerrilla strikes because they expose Garrett to enemies for longer, and more loudly. Normally such animations fetishize violence, but in "Thief," where getting caught is a gamble, they also make it aversive. So it's a righteous move — as is disarming Garrett of his sword. Although, with the game's easily deceived AI, he doesn't need it. Some things seem not to have changed since 2004.
Of course, graphics have leaped ahead in the time since Garrett's last caper. And so his steampunk stalking grounds, The City, looks more foggy and waterlogged than ever on Sony's PlayStation 4. The City also looks much grayer, and under no light but the moon's, it's no wonder the citizenry suffers from an affliction called the Gloom. I'd have seasonal affective disorder, too.
The voice work is the most drastic cosmetic change from the glory days of "The Dark Project" and "The Metal Age." Gone are the guards who barked at Garrett with the clumsy gravitas of summer Shakespeare actors. Instead, the foes of "Thief" curse and grumble about cock rings, of all things, like grunts in some run-of-the-mill shooter. Compared to their idle chatter, the new voice of Garrett, Romano Orzari, will charm your pants off — despite lacking the roguish charisma of original actor Stephen Russell.
Other changes in "Thief" are outright perplexing, like removing multiple save slots. Instead, there's only one that's being constantly overwritten every time you reach a checkpoint and every time Garrett hides in a closet. You can also manually save, but it's best done tentatively, because if you save after backing Garrett into a corner, you have no earlier, safer points to load. I suppose this move counterbalances "Thief's" more defanging changes, but it's still a curious one.
The story is another head-scratcher. "Thief" still resides in that uneasy sphere where technological progress runs up against religious zealotry, but the game simply tries to get too personal. The score for Garrett this time isn't gold, nor jewels, but the life of a female thief companion. She disappears in a mysterious ceremony that also turns his eye turquoise, and the wild goose chase that follows is way more introspection and mind-tripping than a "Thief" fan ever wanted.
The narrative even begets boss battles, too. Though Eidos Montreal tries to remain true to the series' ethos by allowing multiple paths to victory, the fights are as bereft of fun as those of the studio's previous game, "Deus Ex: Human Revolution."
Most of the other changes in "Thief" lie somewhere between inoffensive and competent. Together, however, they bog Garret's return down with iterative blandness — which is especially disappointing given how "Thief" was once the source of inspiration for any game with a trace of stealth. But, inside this incrementally above-average stealth game, there's still a purity to be found in the game's custom difficulty, which allows diehards to turn off the objective markers and turn up the enemy aggression.
Ultimately, even on normal difficulty, "Thief" does deserve your time. But Garrett also deserves to return, again, next time taking a few more risks and lifting a few less ideas from the status quo.