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'The Art of Thief' Review: Dark and gritty steampunk beauty

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The Art of Thief

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Thief originally released in 1998 and redefined what stealth games could be. As one of gaming’s prominent cult-classics influencing everything from Assassin’s Creed to Dishonored, Thief stealthily slipped into the shadows 6-years after its inception. Now, 10-years since the series’ last release, Thief reemerges as immersing as ever before.

To help celebrate the long-awaited game’s release, Titan Books have published an extensive art book chronicling Thief‘s return. The Art of Thief, a sizable 189-pages of work, examines an arduous 6-year pursuit filled with impressively detailed character and environment creations.

The Art of Thief takes a comprehensive, in-depth look at Thief‘s development, making it all the more understandable and justifiable for the game’s lengthy journey to completion.

Concept

Perhaps the most paradoxical habit in gaming as of late are the influential becoming the influenced; or the copied becoming the copier, in certain instances. For instance: Tomb Raider influenced Uncharted, then Uncharted influenced Tomb Raider. In this case, Thief influenced Dishonored, then Dishonored influenced Thief. To summarize, it’s a weird, sort-of Meta-ish phenomena happening in gaming.

If you had any doubts about Thief looking extremely Dishonored-esque after watching the trailers, those uncertainties have most assuredly been shattered with one glimpse at the art book.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but Thief is Dishonored right down to the wanted poster on the first page. Unfortunately for Dishonored, Thief did it better.

As Garrett, you assume the role of master thief navigating through a filthy, bleak Victorian-/Steampunk-esque district known simply as The City. As disease takes The City by hold, the rich grow richer as they remain unscathed by the pandemic. However, as The City’s rich become more apathetic, denizens are growing more vicious and gathering to fight the upper class. Perfect timing for any master thief to strike, and Garrett decides to make his latest move.

Sounds already vaguely familiar.

Characters — Garrett and the Gang

Right down to it, the character designs are gorgeous. I mean, really, mind-blowingly gorgeous. An impressive breakdown of everything from concepts, to weapons, to storyboards, and all the way down to costume study.

Garrett, himself, sprawls nearly 50-pages with his menacing grimace. From a remarkable amount of hand and weapon concepts and designs, straight down to game play storyboards, the book gives a deep, comprehensive look at a character you’ll rarely actually see.

Not commonly seen in art books, the costume study breaks down what each piece of fabric comprises Garrett’s ensemble. Obviously, this is immeasurably useful information for cosplayers, however, just as interesting to study as a fan.

Outside of cosplay, there most likely aren’t too many instances where gamers are studying what kind of clothing makes up a character’s outfit, and it’s just another aspect of game designing that does unnoticed. A really neat aspect more art books should include regularly.

It can’t be said enough: the character designs in Thief are astounding. Although Thief suffers from the same budgetary concerns as every other game, the team at Eidos Montreal did a fantastic job of making repetitive character designs look distinguishable. Despite one character design making up 3 separate characters, each one differentiates enough that it doesn’t take away from the overall beauty of the design. Well, most of the time.

Of course budgetary concerns will amass in 6-years, so it can’t be all that surprising that some NPCs paid the price. The “lower classes” and ladies of the night from Madam Xiao Xiao’s are repeated 7-8 times each with very few alterations made. It reminds me of the Grandma’s Boy dilemma in which they changed the sprite’s tunic from brown to green — or something or other — as to distinguish between enemies. Simple, inexpensive alterations are the difference between 6 months late and over-budget, and on-time and on-budget. All’s forgiven, nonetheless a small detraction from an otherwise impressive array.

In just the same fashion as The Art of Titanfall gripe, my biggest complaint about The Art of Thief‘s character design section is exactly the same: there is far too little art for the coolest designs.

Upon my first flip through the book I came across the “Freaks.” Ghastly, horrifying creatures who were once humans have evolved into their current disgusting forms after “lurk[ing] mainly in the catacombs under the old cathedral, deep underground,” according to Game & Art Director, Nicolas Cantin in The Art of Thief. The “Freak” designs are grotesquely gorgeous, and it isn’t so much that there isn’t enough in the book but probably a lack of material period. Regardless, I would’ve loved to see more of it.

The Wares — Loot, Puzzles & Props

Just like any background actor in film, props play just as key of a role in absorbing you into the experience as the actors themselves. In that sense games are exactly the same as any TV show or film out there. Hours upon meticulous hours go into designing and creating tiny important pieces of a giant puzzle you’ll barely ever notice. To most art book fans, these are some of the most intriguing and alluring aspects of the books.

The Art of Thief is packed with little trinkets and tidbits of generally unnoticed jewels, sculptures, and tapestries. However, they didn’t just toss some designs together and attach a couple notes to the images, TAOT does a great job – throughout – at giving the reader that little bit extra.

In one such panel titled “Get The Architect Key,” you are shown the process through storyboards of how each in-game prop is utilized all the way down to the overall, big picture. Small additions like this peppered through TAOT give this book that extra dash of awesome necessary to set it apart.

Further into the section is a collection of paintings and propaganda posters designed. Although the propaganda images are so similar to ones shown in Dishonored that it borders plagiarism, they’re fully-imagined and pleasant-looking enough that they redeem themselves.

However, it isn’t the posters that really caught my eye, but the short, four-paged “Art Works” section; notably, a painting of a debonair rat. 4 small images depicting lesser respected animals in high-ranking human attire isn’t just neat-looking, it’s clearly a stab at some of the wealthy residents of The City and the lower-classes impressions of them. In and of itself uniquely creative and whimsically fun, the 4 animal paintings are some of the most excellent background images I’ve seen in a long time.

Environments

When anyone is asked what their perception of a Steampunk-esque world would look like, words like dark, cold, and industrial are commonly used. Thief clearly doesn’t stray too far from the Steampunk norm as it showcases an even more dark and gritty version of an otherworldly, late-Victorian style London.

Sounding like a broken record at this point — the game’s environment takes clear cues from Dishonored. In fact, I’d bet that if someone showed me certain images from this book and asked what it’s from at first glance, Dishonored would be the first game I’d mention. Again though, the game does enough to separate itself as its own identity. Not only that but they do it very well.

For reals, though, these environments are jaw-dropping. From abandoned Moira Asylum on an island cliff (an “homage to ‘The Cradle’”), to the intricate glass-ceiling covered slums of Greystone District, to the depressing, shelled-out Stonemarket, these environments are absolutely gorgeous — in a depressing sort of way.

Unfortunately for all of us, I have to mention Dishonored once more while discussing the environments. Let’s paint a picture in our minds, shall we? Desolate, tall buildings line the dark, gritty streets of an otherworldly Victorian London Bridge. Each building, having seen better days, looks as if it is about to collapse. Dilapidated structures slinking into the ground, exterior walls completely missing. You are tasked with making it across the bridge through buildings, navigating previously occupied apartments and stores throughout. If you’ve played Dishonored, you’re probably quite familiar with that level seeing as it looks like an almost literal copy.

Nonetheless, these designs are remarkable and even more beautiful than that which they draw inspiration from.

Overall

Although Thief looks a might like Dishonored, and that’s certainly made for a less unique book, this review is simply about the game’s art. Despite my disappointment in the game’s originality, The Art of Thief is downright amazing. Being annoyed with uniqueness and astonishingly gorgeous designs are two completely different things. Thief has clearly developed a different way than its predecessors, however, the art is absolutely next-gen level.

Aside from the stunning art offered in the book, the glimpses at the game’s intricacies, such as the storyboards, are a phenomenal look into an aspect rarely seen in art books — which makes this a must-buy for anyone looking to get into game design.

If we strip away all the Dishonored similarities in Thief, you’re left with one really fantastic art book. Disappointing or not these artists clearly worked extremely hard with what they had, and completely knocked it out of the ballpark. When it comes down to it, you buy an art book for the art, and The Art of Thief surely isn’t lacking anything there.

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