We've previously looked at Ben Croshaw's "Stranger" games in this space, and as a brief reminder those were a series of four horror/adventure games done in the classic 2D style of Sierra and LucasArts adventures. I'm really not the world's biggest fan of horror games, but I do like a good adventure and I was impressed by the quality of this series given that they were largely the effort of one man over a period of only a few years.
Anyway, the series centered around the exploits of a master thief named Trilby, who took a starring role in two of the four games. Despite his background, Trilby never really got to flex his thieving chops in the games, usually having his hands too full with voodoo horrors from beyond the grave. Croshaw's The Art of Theft, released almost as a sort of "gaiden" game after the Stranger adventures had concluded, stars Trilby but is a completely different experience, and one that's more up my alley. The Art of Theft blends concepts from Metal Gear (and the whole Stealth Action genre in general) with a play style somewhat reminiscent of old rotoscoped action games like Flashback, Blackthorne and Out of This World (just without all the shootin'.)
The game picks up two years prior to Seven Days A Stranger. Trilby gets tired of raiding ancient manors in his native England and heads to America, "the land of the idle rich", for a little self-righteous wealth redistribution (I'm guessing he has an Obama bumper sticker on his roadster these days.) The game features a series of seven missions that start out simply with Trilby looking to enhance his personal fortunes, but he quickly becomes embroiled in some complex plot involving a shady super-corporation.
Trilby enters each mission armed only with his "grolly", an umbrella with both a grappling hook and taser concealed in the tip. He'll face the usual modern security complement of laser beams (hasn't anyone in these games ever heard of passive infrared?), outlandishly dopey guards (can't any of these evil monolithic entities afford to pay better than minimum wage?) and security cameras, and these will constitute the bulk of his adversaries, although there's a few extra twists and turns as the game proceeds. Trilby can raise and lower himself through thin floors via the grolly, and can press up against walls to hide in the shadows from the view of cameras and patrolling guards. He can also tase guards, but he prefers not to do that and sets a personal limit for himself at the outset of each mission, and if you exceed that limit he automatically aborts and you have to start over. Unlike the Metal Gear games, a guard spotting you seems to only result in them dialing Mom and wetting themselves, but each of these incidents constitutes an "alarm" of which you can usually only get three or so before the typically under-funded police finally decide to roll around to the scene and Trilby has to beat feet back to his hideout.
You can't expect much in the way of logic or realism from this one, and this might actually throw you for a loop upon starting out. The guards will simply walk right through you if you are "hugging the wall" in darkness, and this rather silly arrangement is actually necessary to get through quite a few situations in the game. The "light system" is integral to the game, and might be the weakest part overall, as it's a little confusing and complex - the guards can't see you at all in the dark, but apparently will bump into you unless you are hugging a wall. Then there's "medium light", where they'll see you if you're not hugging the wall, but won't if you are, but will still walk right by you if you're pressed up against it. Then there's full light, where you are screwed if you are spotted no matter what. Guards are almost always positioned so that you have to know how the light works inside and out and use it perfectly to get by unless you intend to tase them or set off an alarm. One wonders why no hallway in the game is able to be adequately lit throughout its entire length, but perhaps this game takes place in some ultra-greenie future where building codes mandate extreme energy conservation.
The light system also leads to one of a few annoying gameplay niggles - to hug a wall, you must tap X once, then again to release. Perhaps it's just me, but the intuitive thing seemed to be to hold X rather than tapping it repeatedly, and I had to un-learn that tendency over the course of a few games to make any real progress. I think holding it would have worked out better, as if you leave X pressed for a little too long, Trilby springs back up off the wall. The fourth level of the game is also long and notoriously irritating, and refuses to let you quit in the middle of it due to your being imprisoned - I suppose that's logical in a "fourth wall" sort of way, but none of the rest of the game bothers to hold itself to this sort of level of logic and realism, so why burden the player with it here? The game also doesn't have native joystick support, and though you can easily work around this with a free program like Joy2Key, it really seems like something that should have been built in given the action nature of the gameplay.
In spite of these little niggles, if you are on a strict diet of (legal) freeware, this is easily one of the best action-platformers you can get ahold of. The game plays well and smoothly on the whole, the sprite work is fluid and nice in an old-school way, the MIDI soundtrack is surprisingly good (even reminiscent of the N64's Goldeneye in places.) The story seems a little rushed and silly, but it doesn't matter much in a game of this nature, and the twists and turns in the level design are interesting. Good stuff.