Bang Bang Sneak’em’up

Who doesn’t enjoy getting away with crimes? Nobody, and if they say otherwise they’re a cop. Digital robbery is a long-beloved pastime and Filcher takes clear inspiration from one of the very best in that line, Thief. Calling itself “a lo-fi loveletter to classic immersive sims like Thief and Deus Ex” is frankly extremely bold, what with those being two of the best in their genre, and yet Filcher manages to deliver a mechanically refined take that I found quite compelling.

Wait for it…

We’ll start with presentation, because in this particular game’s case it matters immensely. I find the game’s visual style appealing but it’s definitely more concerned with mechanical clarity than anything else. Shadows are very well defined which makes where you can and can’t hide identifiable at a glance. There’s also a light indicator bar on your hud, meaning you are never in doubt as to your visibility. Enemies are 2D with Doom-esque sprite changes depending on your viewing angle, leaving very little ambiguity as to where they’re facing and where the back of their head is so you can bonk them. Most areas are boxy and simplistic, but that means details don’t get lost in the sauce and the effect of light is always clear. You don’t play Filcher for its textures, you play it because it’s a sticky finger fantasyland.

It’s the audio that impressed me the most, however. I cannot think of another game in recent memory with more perfectly tuned audio design than Filcher. Once you fully understand the game’s audio language you can tell exactly where any given guard is if they’re even remotely in earshot. Sound and shadow are your greatest allies and the game handles both without a single misstep. It’s kind of incredible, and also means this game can only reasonably be played with headphones otherwise you’ll be at a distinct disadvantage. The only downside is on the rare occasion where you run on metal, you sound like a high-heeled clydesdale on a tin roof.

Sporey’s place is pretty cozy.

So you’re a thief. A professional one, even! As such Sporey begins the game with every tool of trade she’ll have for the game’s runtime. This may sound like you won’t have much to discover, but that’s not the case – the game’s threats will constantly shift, presenting new challenges and new ways to tackle them in true im-sim fashion. Sadly you can’t just stack boxes to finish a level in record time, or talk your way out of any problem as everyone in this noir-ified UK is very quick on the draw, but otherwise you’re given an immense amount of freedom. Sure you can knock a guard out with a well placed thwack and drag them away, but you could also slink through the shadows to avoid him, or throw a noisemaker to lure him and others away, or even flashbang the lot if you think you can get out of there quick enough. Every level offers heaps of these tasty open-ended puzzles to chew on and they never get boring, the mark of a quality im-sim.

One complaint I’ve seen leveled at this game is the lack of quicksave/quickload. To that I’d say, why do you need them when these levels were designed around not having that feature? Thief levels were lengthy and built to punish, forcing you to come at them again and again to even figure out individual rooms much less the entire thing. Filcher does not do this! Missions can take several attempts to figure out a functional route but never to an unreasonable extent, though it can feel deflating to get lit up after making significant progress. By the time I got to about mission 6 I started to feel the quicksave itch as the difficulty had ramped up, but instead I opted for messier, riskier tactics that ended up paying off and turning it into a playground. I used literally every tool in my belt, improvised heavily, and was rewarded handsomely as I skipped back to my boat and rowed into the moonset. In that moment Filcher taught me that I was never actually good at Thief or its ilk; I was only ever good at quicksaving. I’m better at these games than I was before I started, and I’m grateful.

You can’t tell, but this building is jam-packed with cops on account of it being an (unmarked?) police station. I knocked out about 90% of them.

From that point on the game never presented as much of a challenge, but I legitimately think that’s because I’d gotten better at it as opposed to the curve being off. The last two levels were on the long side but not so jam-packed with guards as to present an unreasonable problem. The very last one in particular offered some complexities that I much appreciated, with a very layered map making sound a constant boon and bane. Not a one of the game’s 9 levels was a dud and I’ll take that over having to trudge through the low points of some of Filcher’s forebears.

That said, I do have a few complaints of my own: 

  • Why do all doors automatically close after a couple seconds? I frequently lost track of which rooms I’d already torn apart, and throughout the game I found myself double-clicking them just so I could keep peeking through. It was a nuisance, never a feature.
  • Loot being purely a scoring boost after hitting the level’s threshold makes me sad. I would have loved to use my ill-gotten gains to improve my hideout, upgrade my tools, increase my item uses, something to that effect. I still swiped anything I saw because I am goblin-pilled, but that was the only reason.
  • I know I praised the game’s mechanical focus, but the backloading of almost all of its plot is a bit odd. There is a fair amount of intrigue to be had and almost all of it is packed into the last 4 levels. I guess that’s also kind of true to how Thief gets weird partway in, but at least The Sword mission hits in the first half there. While this does conclude satisfyingly, it ramps and wraps so rapidly that it almost feels like a setup for an as-yet unannounced Filcher 2.
Are you? It seems like you did a lot already.

Did any of these gripes actually impact my enjoyment? Not in the least! I played little else while I was working through Filcher, fully steeped in sneakthief shenanigans, though I’ll confess I don’t have the patience to go back for ghost ranks. Thwacking guards upside the head with a blackjack is a special kind of joy I refuse to deprive myself of. That’s the beauty of im-sims; regardless of how you choose to tackle their challenges there’s always a satisfying way to do so, and Filcher exemplifies this core design tenet. Whether it’s been a while since you’ve last experienced the joy of purloining precious prizes or you just can’t remember what cocktail of mods you need to make Thief playable on modern machines, Filcher is more than worthy of your attention.