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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Review: Killers and Thieves (PC)


Now this is a video game whose topic hasn’t been approached for quite some time! Killers and Thieves is a game about organized thievery in a low fantasy setting. I was fortunate enough to start playing on my PC around the time of the Thief series’ inception. The story, stealth mechanics and thrill of this particular roleplay all formed the basis for what the gaming stealth genre is today. I always wondered though: what would it be like to actually control a medieval thieves guild? The Elder Scrolls games offered an honorary title and the first person perspective of the scenario, yet they still lacked sufficient depth in this regard.

Killers and Thieves wishes to address this and offer players the full control which a true guildmaster deserves. Planning, training, coordinating directly and even meddling in the internal affairs of Greypool, a city-state and its numerous warring factions. From the visual style alone, I could have guessed that Banner Saga was somehow evoked. I was not wrong, since the title I’m reviewing today represents the personal project of The Banner Saga’s Creative Director, Alex Thomas. It’s his Steam debut as developer and co-founder of Stoic, and I do hope that Killers and Thieves is just the start of many more projects.

With such a title, you’d think that Killers and Thieves is a pretty straightforward affair. I assure you that it is not. An intriguing story about constant betrayal and vying for control, is complemented by a good ol’ fashioned revenge motivation and as you probably guessed it, pure greed. We are talking of thieves here, afterall. For the sake of argument and roleplay, the “heroes” of our tale, shall only be referred to as “killers” when there’s no other option. That’s my way of playing stealth games or any similar title which requires finesse. Why kill innocent bystanders or even guards, when your objective is the loot itself and there are ways to obtain it, without taking any violent measures? It’s the best and most rewarding way to enjoy the Thief and Hitman series and I abide by non-violence, until forced otherwise.

Luckly, Killers and Thieves can accommodate both players which prefer the direct (and far more bloody) approach of leaving no witnesses behind or those which are patient enough to use stealth and other tactics, to their full advantage. Just by having these options, no one can complain that the game is too hard or restrictive. You just need coordinate your in-game actions and keep in mind that as guildmaster, you control an entire team of (initially) semi-professionals, not Garrett the Master Thief. Teamwork is as crucial to your ultimate success, as is the proper training of your subordinates while taking into account their individual strengths and weaknesses.

Part RPG and at least partially based on the strategy genres (both real time & turn-based), Killers and Thieves is still a fairly random experience. It ensures a lot of replay value, I agree. Yet it can lead to some frustration as well. I had to restart a new game, numerous times, until I was offered a decent starting team of thieves. Only three playable characters seem to be persistent throughout the story. Botch, the Patron Saint tavern keeper, Candle, a skilled female assassin and Key, a mercenary/locksmith and perhaps the noticeable brains behind most of the underhanded operations.

The tavern serves as headquarters for your guild and the characters I mentioned above, are referred to, by their nicknames. While there’s no complex backstory to the important characters, the game’s intro cinematic, does show us that Key was saved by Candle from certain torture and death. And Greypool does remind me of the City in the Thief universe. A murky place, governed by corrupt merchant families. The ideal conditions for an equally thriving thieves guild.

The graphical details in Killers and Thieves (proprietary engine) are a real paradox. On one hand we have beautiful, hand-drawn artwork for the main characters and maps and on the other, we are presented with repetitive and generic-looking 2D sprites and assets for the heists and missions themselves. It ran flawlessly in 4K@60fps. Thus we have a mixed bag, of both interesting and underwhelming visuals. Despite looking different in their character presentation screens, during heists all the guild members are exactly the same blue cloak-wearing clones, regardless of their gender.

The guards and city dwellers are also featuring only one type of 2D sprite. This issue has to be addressed by the developer in a subsequent update. Sure, Candle would stick up like a sore thumb if she was wearing that white robe everywhere, but don’t make her look just like the brawny dude you just recruited from another dive. Visual diversity needs to be implemented since the gameplay is currently being dragged down by the mission structure and looks.

I didn’t expect this game’s guards to keep yelling “taffer” every five minutes, but I would have preferred anything other than some caveman-like grunts. The guild members are as silent as the grave and perhaps that’s realistic enough during heists. Maybe they’re communicating through hand signals instead. Like true professionals, such as special branches of various armed forces. The soundtrack was also repetitive, so the overall sounds were a let down.

Apparently the initial lack of a proper tutorial led to disgruntled players (and negative reviews). I agree that those few still frames which discuss the basics, weren’t enough. The dev team introduced, in Killers and Thieves’ Main Menu, a YouTube clip with a detailed explanation on how the heist missions work and what tactics to apply. I shall summarize that by stating two key elements which shall lead to your victory. Other than the aforementioned teamwork, patience is paramount and for obvious reasons. No matter how brave or eager they may be, the thieves and killers you control cannot succeed in combat against two or more guards consecutively. Avoiding duels whenever possible is the key to prolonged survival on the brutal streets of Greypool.

Another gameplay aspect I’d like to discuss about, is the initial lack of basic “thieving” skills for the majority of your new guild members. We’re talking of prospective thieves that cannot get past a locked door! Key seems to be only one having this important skill from the very start and through training at the HQ, he’ll have to teach his other colleagues. Characters gain experience either through heists or “off-screen” missions (which have a certain success/failure rate and are automatically completed after several in-game days). Make sure you save 5 skill points for as many of the teammates as possible, in order to train them about lockpicking. If you wish to be more versatile, have at least half of them learn to open locked doors and chests, while the other half should learn proper dagger fighting techniques from Candle.

Missions unlock in a linear progression, across Greypool’s districts and you shall learn all about the various factions. You can’t trust any of them and as guildmaster, you work for yourself and your (hopefully) skilled team. What’s important to understand is that the start of Killers and Thieves simulates the hardships of starting a guild from the ground up, with people that you get to shape into real professionals, provided they live long enough. Remember, no amount of loot is worth risking the time and coin already invested in a veteran thief. Leave the high risk-high reward incentives for games that might be more forgiving about mission failure. No quicksave or even manual saves to spare you the loss or temporary incarceration of a valuable guild member.

There is a lot of room for improvement, but I did enjoy Killers and Thieves so far. Mainly because it reminded me of the Thief series mixed with elements of underworld management, like in Omerta – City of Gangsters. Genre hybrids are always a breath of fresh air for the gaming scene. Sure, it could benefit from a lower price tag, but that’s what Steam Sales and bundles are for, right? I sincerely hope that Steam Achievements shall be introduced at a later date. And some extended visual variety, if it’s not too much to ask for.

All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.

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