Many heralded Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series as a rebirth of the adventure game genre. Toward that end, I think Telltale did a lot of things right, but not quite everything. While it did well to remove ludicrous puzzle designs, drawn-out playthroughs, and having to tediously tap every inch of the screen, what remains is more a well-animated, high-budget visual novel. That’s fine if you want a visual novel, but if you want meaty gameplay with your dramatic decision-making, you might prefer Rival Games and Skybound Games’ Thief of Thieves.
Framed as a sequel series to the comic of the same name, which was written by Robert Kirkman of The Walking Dead fame, Thief of Thieves is a true stealth game as much as it is an adventure game. Playing as Celia Kowalczyk, protégé to and one-time lover of the infamous thief Conrad “Redmond” Paulson, you’re learning the ropes of high-stakes thieving under his watchful eye. After a job in America goes south, Conrad calls in a favor for Celia to join a team in Italy under an old friend, becoming part of a multicultural team brimming with potential. The question is whether they can actually operate as a team, with personalities clashing and a rival gang of far less delicate thieves at their heels.
It’s a breathlessly paced affair over four episodes, each interconnecting in surprising ways. Story appears in voiced comic panels and branching dialogue, but amid the brisk pace, there will be calmer moments that emphasize the most important part of gameplay — paying attention. You are expected to be observant, whether that’s eavesdropping, memorizing information, or choosing your words carefully in the right conversation. Then comes the tricky part.
Thief of Thieves isn’t a predetermined story or a puzzle box with just one solution. Not only are optional objectives regularly sprinkled in, but so are consequences and opportunities presented by those decisions. Characters can die if you overplay your hand, but if you’re as clever as Conrad believes, you’ll bloodlessly slip in and out of every trial with aplomb.
The fact that many of the options afforded to you aren’t guaranteed wins is surprisingly gratifying. You do have to commit to certain decisions, and missing a key detail might cost you a preferable outcome — but it never feels cheap. The writing supports this wonderfully, making you feel in control. You’re afforded multiple opportunities to practice the game’s minigames for hacking, lockpicking, and safecracking, which helps given they’re all real-time. You’re in control, but you never quite feel comfortable, which is what a great stealth game should do.
One of the best examples of this is the counter-heist, which sees you intercepting another team’s plan in the tight confines of a fancy Swiss train. Where normally you can case a joint, the train job throws you into the deep end with your skills pushed to the limit. You can choose to fly solo, trust an ally, tackle a side objective, and/or disrupt your opponents multiple ways. With no traditional stealth takedowns, you really have to think about how to navigate the situation. If you’re a team player, allies can open new possibilities with their unique skills, like hardware manipulation and pickpocketing. It’s nail-bitingly brilliant no matter how you skin it.
Thief of Thieves does this with every scenario, merging the line between stealth and adventure into a single cohesive experience. After so many decried Telltale Games for being nothing but QTEs and dialogue decisions, Rival Games ups the ante brilliantly. Thief of Thieves in turn has terrific replay value with its myriad potential routes. There are achievements not only for being an ace thief, but for exploring less ideal routes, like scrubbing the tapes that caught you earlier when casing a mark. This is the sort of reactivity you expect from an immersive sim, not an episodic adventure game.
In-between challenges, Thief of Thieves does offer some downtime though, and if you’re so inclined, you can learn a fair bit more about the cast of memorable characters that surround you. Or you can play Celia has self-interested. Though she’s a predefined character, she’s malleable, like Geralt in The Witcher. She can be snarky, playful, rude, delicate, or a combination thereof.
The cast are all brilliant, with Skybound sparing no expense for Hollywood talent like Debra Wilson, Elias Toufexis, and Stephen Stanton — though it’s fair to say Fryda Wolff steals the show as Celia. Wolff already showed considerable chops in Mass Effect: Andromeda as the adorkable Sara Ryder, but Celia really flexes her range. The result is an adventure heroine who can stand proudly alongside the likes of Dave Fennoy’s Lee Everett.
Criticisms of Thief of Thieves are few and not deal-breaking. Every now and then, you will have an odd clipping error with the geometry, or the AI will inexplicably see you in pitch-black shadows. And the isometric camera angles do a great job of capturing the same excellent panel work as the motion comic sections, but they aren’t always ideal for surveying an area.
Also, while it’s fair that the game rarely rewards fleeing, there are times where a few more ways to evade after being discovered would really help. Checkpoints aren’t too spread out, and you can skip through repeated dialogue, but either manual saves or more hiding spots would’ve been welcome. Given Thief of Thieves was assembled by a team of only 20 or so people though, these blemishes are acceptable.
The real shame is that despite a compelling teaser at the end of Thief of Thieves’ first season, a follow-up is unlikely. Two years after release, Rival Games was one of several companies brought down by the COVID-19 pandemic, forced to liquidate late last year. It’s a true waste as Rival Games went on to make Alien: Blackout, itself an equally solid tie-in game with a similar clever mixture of gameplay and storytelling. The studio’s first game, The Detail, was sadly also delisted not long after — itself an interactive crime noir.
I hope that this turn of events hasn’t discouraged either the team behind Thief of Thieves or Skybound Games from exploring more games in this vein. Thief of Thieves is easily one of the best adventure games I’ve played in years and is available on every current platform, even Nintendo Switch. Whether you’re a fan of films like Ocean’s Eleven, Telltale’s games, classic adventure games, or brisk stealth titles where ghosting is rewarded, you need this one in your library.