As illegal as it is in real-life, there’s something oddly satisfying about larceny in the digital world. From countless questlines for the Thieves Guild in The Elder Scrolls to the procedural heists of The Swindle, few things get your blood pumping in equal parts fear and elation quite like scoping a joint, filling your swag bag and legging it before the fuzz turn up. So when a game as cryptically titled as Thief Simulator sneaks its way onto Switch, it’s already in a good position to steal our attention (and our wallets) from the get go.
A few ‘missions’ in, and it soon becomes clear that Thief Simulator does exactly what it says on the tin. There’s no deep storyline full of double-crosses and elaborate heists, so don’t expect the kind of narrative tour de force you get with the Uncharted games. There aren’t huge open-worlds to a steal en masse in the vein of the Grand Theft Auto series, either. What you do get is a handful of neighbourhoods full of unsuspecting citizens and their precious valuables. You’re playing a character literally called The Thief, so you shouldn’t be expecting anything other than straight five-finger discounts.
In practice, Thief Simulator works like a cross between the Thief games (the good ones on PC, not that godawful reboot from 2014) and Payday 2. A sandbox sim is spent entirely in first-person, you’re slowly introduced to the easy-to-learn mechanics at play and how best to use them. You’ll start by using a crowbar to crudely smash a window and steal some kettles and saucepans. But later you’ll learn to pick a simple lock so you can gain access to a property without making so much noise. Not so long after you’re learning how to scope out a house, tagging the occupants to learn their routines and how to get away with more cumbersome items.
Thief Simulator has a lot of little systems running alongside one another, but it does a brilliant job of slowly introducing them to you at a pace that shows you just how many options you truly have. Pulling off simple jobs earns you XP, which in turn enables you to purchase better skills. It’s here you’ll learn how to pick tougher locks or identify items of interest faster. When you’re out on a job and you reach a climbable fence you can’t clamber over – because your agility isn’t high enough – you’ll know where to focus your skills next time you reach a new level. Stealing items and selling them at the local pawn shop will gain you cash, while more specific items can be sold off on a black market marketplace on the PC back at your garage HQ.
Occupants you’ve tagged will appear with white silhouettes, so you can track their movements when you’re nearby, which makes for some tense moments as you’re slowly opening drawers and cupboards in search of jewellery or cash. That same sense of intense fear comes into play when you accidentally trip an alarm system by smashing a window on a more expensive property, or walk out into a street and get spotted carrying a stolen TV. Now you’re driving away to outrun the cops or hiding in a nearby dumpster while the rozzers try and find you.
This is where Thief Simulator starts to trip itself up. Because when you’re slowly building up the details of a target location – building up a set of notes on routines and potential valuable locations before taking the risk to break in during the day or in the dead of night when they’re asleep – the game comes together like an illegal dream. But when you have to jump into a car and actually ‘get away’, you realise you might as well be driving a wet cardboard box. Even the cars in the Far Cry games drive better, and they have terrible driving models. It basically renders escaping utterly pointless, so you’ll always have to hide when things go awry.
There’s plenty of ways to enhance your jobs, including missions given to you by a cringe-worthy contact over the phone (complete with a knock-off New York accent) and intel you can buy on a certain location. These tips are expensive, but knowing a particular property has a high-tech security system or that there’s a key to the front door hidden outside can completely change the outcome of a thieving run. You can buy new gear as you level up and earn more cash – including mini cameras that can fit into mailboxes for some handy surveillance or cutters than remove planes of glass in a window – and some of those later skills effectively turn you into a silent god of theft.
The AI at play in Thief Simulator isn’t brilliant, which can make them both easy to avoid if you’re hidden in enough shadow, but also difficult to predict when a pedestrian just seemingly appears out of nowhere at the most inopportune time. It’s also odd that you can hit the same handful of properties in a row, but there’s no repercussions. If a house with plenty of valuables suddenly had bars on the window after you smashed one the night before, or had a dog patrolling at night because you entered the property during nightfall, you’d have to adjust your tactics for the promise of even better loot. Such systemic elements aren’t here, but the art of theft is still an addictive one.
As a short term experience, Thief Simulator is a lot of fun. But once you spend more than a few hours, you begin to find yourself repeating the same missions over again. With certain story quests locked behind certain character levels, you’re forced to hit the same set of houses over and over again. That initial thrill does briefly reappear every time you acquire a new skill or level up high enough to earn the ability to drill locks or hack security systems, but the grind becomes a little too much at times.
As a port, Thief Simulator is a decent effort on Switch. Despite the basic character, car and location designs, there are some moments of slowdown and pop-in becomes a fairly regular occurrence. It should be said that this is a game that doesn’t look amazing on PC either (something the developer intended in order to focus entirely on the craft of its gameplay), so this shouldn’t be mistaken as being entirely the product of poor optimisation for Switch.
If you’re tired of Payday 2’s often loud and at-large robbery antics – and you’d like to take a detour into the more quiet vocation of thievery – Thief Simulator has the new career for you. While it’s not the prettiest of games and it soon starts repeating itself, the sense of freedom you’re given to rob neighbourhoods full of unsuspecting victims is still an intriguing one. He might not be Garrett, but The Thief has plenty of skills to steal a place on Nintendo Switch.