It used to be that, when games were titled ‘X Simulator’, you’d get a dry, dull game, devoid of much – what’s the word – gameyness? Flight simulators, train simulators, truck simulators – over the years, they were once considered fodder only for ultra-serious enthusiasts. I recall hearing stories in the 90s of people firing up their flight sim of choice and making real-time, transatlantic flights from London to New York (and vice versa), across a mostly featureless ocean. Think back to this being done on 90s PC hardware too, in some cases before 3D acceleration – and it becomes even more baffling to consider.

However, in recent years the Simulator category has undergone a real renaissance. It’s hard to know exactly when this started, but games such as Euro Truck Simulator 2, despite their sometimes punishing levels of ‘realism’ inherent in the gameplay (I’ve played Euro Truck Simulator 2 for hours and still can’t park the truck at the end of a job without the auto-park option, for example) have had enough bells and whistles in the visuals and general design to be a much more complete entertainment experience than you may have once expected. For Euro Truck Simulator 2 in particular, there’s a real feeling of zen that’s achieved when you’re out on the open road and en route to your destination, with the option of having real, live radio stations playing in your cab. It’s intoxicating.

There’s also the joke simulators (Grass Simulator, anyone?) that have sprung up in the wake of the category’s grandfather: Goat Simulator. Goat Simulator itself, starting off as a pretty one note joke, is another surprisingly great experience that’s been expanded with a ton of content, both free and paid-for, that pokes fun at a wide variety of big targets. Playing like GTA with a goat, it’s a fun, often hilarious game that provides near-endless opportunities for causing chaos – packed full of pop culture references and puns.

I expected Thief Simulator to sit somewhere between those two extremes; the serious, focused gameplay of Euro Truck Simulator 2 and the overtly silly chaos of Goat Simulator. Surprisingly, though it’s pun-heavy in the naming of certain in-game items and organisations, Thief Simulator doesn’t stray into the daft slapstick of Goat Simulator – unless you count the sometimes pun-driven names of in-game items and organisations.

The first clue that the game is going to be darker than you may expect comes with the title screen; a shot of the thief himself, lit by the glow of a TV set – his surroundings a grubby, shadowy room. He’s all dressed up in dark clothing and looks appropriately thuggish; it wasn’t what I anticipated, especially given the minimalist game icon that you’ll have on the Switch’s home screen when you install.

There’s a surprising amount of depth and freedom to approaching the game, too. The tutorial is extensive and will carefully walk you through the different elements of simulated thievery – you’ll take on random tasks for cash (destroying an item at a designated address, for example), steal from inside houses that you find (or create) a way into and sell your ill-gotten gains via websites or an in-game pawn shop, which itself is a location that can be visited. You’ll learn the daily routines of neighbourhood inhabitants, you’ll likely be caught sneaking around the neighbourhood in a suspicious manner and you’ll run or hide from the police and other residents when they’ve been alerted to your presence (dumpsters are great hiding places and are thankfully bereft of any contents!).

You drive to your location in a beaten up old car; you’ll scope out the neighbourhood from the car itself before carefully proceeding on foot once you’ve parked in a suitably low-key place and you’ll pick locks in a manner akin to the lock-picking games present in Bethesda RPGs. You’ll even be able to buy information via your hideout’s computer, giving you insight into where certain homeowners hide their keys or other valuable items, as well as finding new jobs and items of interest to find on your escapades.

Your character will level up, gaining new abilities in lock-picking and allowing you to access higher-security properties in the neighbourhood. Likewise, you can increase your agility and scale previously-inaccessible walls.   

If you’re caught by the police, you’ll fail instantly in your current task and will be booted back to a previous checkpoint, though these do seem to be reasonably generous and it’s never too much hassle to go back to these points when you have been arrested.

At some stages, you won’t necessarily have an in-game mission other than ‘steal stuff to level up’ – and this is where the game’s open nature really becomes apparent. It can be a bit bewildering when this first happens – the missions give you a focused objective that steers you into where to go and what to do next – but it’s not an unwelcome change. There’s something really satisfying about working out how to access a house and timing it just right so there’s no one around, then getting in there, stealing whatever you can get your hands on and then getting it all back to your hideout, to sell either via your computer or by visiting the pawn shop. In a nice touch, larger items have to be physically carried from the property to your car, then put in the boot/trunk (delete as applicable depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re from!) and carried into – and sold at – the pawn shop.

Though it’s not a technically impressive game by any means, there’s a reasonable level of detail in the visuals; it’s a game made on a lower budget – and considering the small team involved in its creation, I think they should be proud of the work done here. Sound effects are sparse but functional and there’s a real atmosphere of tension that’s created when you’re close to being discovered, as well as adrenaline-inducing moments that kick in when you’re trying to escape from the attention of residents or the recently-contacted police.

Unfortunately, operating your car soon becomes a chore before you’ve even gone anywhere – each time you want to drive, you’ll need to open the car door, then enter the car, then find the spot to start the car and start driving. It’s initially a sequence that isn’t too troubling and it certainly fits with the ‘Simulator’ nature of the game, but when under pressure to escape capture or attention, it is too long-winded a sequence with hitboxes that are far too small and fiddly. Thankfully, driving itself is well implemented and enjoyable. The inclusion of a third person camera is a welcome touch too, especially when parking your car.

Walking and performing other actions in first person is the main focus of the game, however. Whether you’re walking around your hideout, the pawn shop or searching someone’s house for items of value to steal, the game plays pretty nicely. There’s a decent minimap which shows areas of vision for everyone nearby, as well as the areas the police are searching when they’re called. It’s useful and well-implemented.

Overall, I’m very impressed with Thief Simulator. Though clearly crafted on a budget, it’s a fairly unusual concept with a much more grounded tone than you’d perhaps expect – and there’s not much else like this on Switch, especially in the absence of any GTA games. Saints Row is way closer to the insane hilarity of Goat Simulator, of course – and doesn’t really compare in terms of the gameplay on offer here. Less of an open world game and more of an open neighbourhood simulator with the focus on stealth (which is very satisfying in practice), Thief Simulator has been a very welcome surprise indeed.

Despite some technical limitations – it very much looks and feels like a game that would have been high-tech a generation or two ago, though I think Switch players rarely expect visual showcases from their games – along with a few problems with the overly fussy, sometimes long-winded interface, there’s a lot to like here and plenty of content to keep you occupied. I’ve definitely enjoyed my time with Thief Simulator so far – and look forward to seeing what more it has to offer.

Note: Thank you to Forever Entertainment for kindly providing the review code for Thief Simulator.

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