The Phantom Thief Stina and 30 Jewels is an arcade-like game that has you breaking into an assortment of stages, grabbing keycodes, deactivating security systems, and escaping into the night with shiny jewel in hand. As a concept, Phantom Thief is intriguing, but while it can be fun, it's ultimately let down by frustrating design decisions that make it more difficult than it needs to be.
At the beginning of each level, you pick an entry point (through one of several windows) for Stina and her Burglar Bots, though more Burglar Bots will still stream in from other entrances. Once inside, your objective is to head to a code terminal and memorize a four-button sequence (i.e. A - A - B - X), then run to the jewel and use the code to remove one level of protection from your sparkling prize. There are three levels of security on each jewel, so three trips to the code terminals are required to reveal the rock. There can be multiple code terminals in a level, but they all display the same random codes, which change each time you replay a stage. Once you've got the jewel, Stina can make her escape via any window.
Of course, a game of cops and robbers would be pointless without the cops, and you're not alone in these stages; detective Sara Brown and her Security Bots are on the chase from the moment the level begins. If a Security Bot grabs hold of you, you can mash A repeatedly to break free, but three Bots together will overpower you and end the stage. One touch from Sara herself is all it takes to see the game over screen, so you need to steer well clear of the speedy detective. Each stage has a time limit, but they're fairly generous, and you're much more likely to be caught red-handed than you are to run out of time.
Phantom Thief is definitely an action game, rather than a real-time strategy game. There is a bit of stealth involved, as the Security Bots generally don't notice you hiding behind walls or the jewel box, but Phantom Thief is mostly a game of chase. The strategy comes from picking your point of entry and ostensibly in controlling your gang of Burglar Bots, but that boils down to pressing X to make some of them come running towards you, and it's often a toss-up whether it works or not.
After you've successfully captured all thirty jewels, the Detective mode is unlocked, where you play as Sara and try to stop the now-disguised Stina in her tracks. With the tables turned, you place Security Bots around the stage, restoring breached security levels at the code terminals, dragging Burglar Bots to sweet justice by depositing them in the blue circles, and searching for the real Phantom Thief hidden among them (the only one going after the jewel). It looks to be a welcome counterpoint to the first mode, so it's a real shame that the requirement of first completing every Phantom Thief level will keep many players, including this reviewer, from diving in as the detective for a very long time.
That's because the main problem with The Phantom Thief is the difficulty. It's not simply that it's a challenging game, but that the challenge is uneven and feels artificially inflated by several odd design decisions. First is the fact that once Sara gets on your tail, she follows you relentlessly, often a pixel or so behind, meaning your only hope is to run at full tilt around the stage and hope you'll be bailed out by idle Burglar Bots along the way. Theoretically, you could press the X button to rally the troops, but doing so causes Stina to stop in her tracks for an animation and invariably results in a capture. This is quite frustrating, to say the least. Tight turns are also out, since any deviation from top speed will most likely leave you behind bars, so running for cover is disappointingly less effective than just trying to bulldoze into any pack of Burglar Bots you can find.
The action also doesn't pause while Stina is accessing code terminals or inputting button combinations at the jewel case, which leaves you vulnerable to capture while much of the screen is covered with the code. This could be seen as a realistic touch to heighten the tension, since the fuzz certainly wouldn't wait for you to finish memorizing a security code before pouncing in a real life jewel heist. However, in such close quarters and with the inability to see what's happening through the code overlay, it can result in unseen captures, or you being repeatedly dragged away from the code terminal without having seen the button combination.
Much more troublesome is the fact that upon successfully freeing the jewel from its case, a huge banner with a picture of Stina proclaiming “The jewel is mine!” is plastered over the screen, frustratingly obscuring your view right when you need to escape. Accidentally running headlong into an unseen detective underneath Stina's premature victory cry feels incredibly cheap.
Luckily the music is a high point; the downtempo techno soundtrack feels suitably spy-like and goes a long way towards stylising your jewel-thieving exploits. It's repetitive but won't get on your nerves, and while there's no voice acting, the sound effects complement the music nicely.
The animé-style character portraits and slick menu screens set high hopes for the presentation of Phantom Thief, so it's unfortunate that the rest of the game is a graphical letdown. Everything moves at a quick clip, and the 3D effect works fine, but the textures, environments, and characters are low-res, chunky, and generally underwhelming. The character models are also all exactly the same; the only thing distinguishing Stina from Sara from the Burglar Bots from the Security Bots is the colour of their hair and outfits. It works, for the most part, but it's definitely a missed opportunity to inject some personality into the proceedings.
In some stages there can be upwards of forty characters on screen at once, which might excuse the palette-swaps for the Security Bots and the Burglar Bots, but surely at least Stina and Sara could have had unique character models. Their portraits look nothing alike, why should their polygonal incarnations be exactly the same? Similarly, the levels vary only by arrangement, and the theme, graphics, and objects remain the same throughout. There are also a few awkward moments in the translation (“The 21th street jewel is mine!”), and we experienced two system-crashing glitches that required hard restarts.
On the plus side, Phantom Thief is by nature a very replayable game, well suited to portable pilfering. The randomly generated keycodes and erratic nature of the AI mean that a single stage never plays the same way twice, and the fast-moving gameplay and time-limited levels make it a good fit for pick up play on the go.
If the concept sounds like something you'd enjoy, and if you treat it as a simple arcade game of chase rather than a strategic affair, Phantom Thief has some fun moments. It is incredibly satisfying making it out of a level with the jewel, and when things go right, virtual gem theft can be a rewarding experience; unfortunately, it's often as frustrating as it is fun, and the presentation is decidedly sub-par. It's best in small doses, and unlocking the Detective mode sadly borders on masochistic. Hardened criminals who are up for a truly difficult heist (including cheap captures along the way) will likely get a rush out of the close-quartered action, but more mild-mannered felons should think carefully before breaking into The Phantom Thief.