It’s rare that a game make such a compelling case for its existence in its own title, but the name Thief explains exactly what the game should be, and how you should feel while playing.
The 2014 Thief, which seeks to reboot the series for a modern audience, fails in this regard in many ways. It’s an unsatisfying gumbo of ideas and limitations that never come together to create a game with a satisfying vision, although there are moments when a much better title peeks through the slurry of what was released.
One of the things the game gets right, and much better games have stumbled in this regard, is the combat. It’s barely there, and you’re all but powerless once you have to face down a guard. Thief gets so much wrong and takes away so much of what made the originals interesting, but keeping Garrett all but useless in combat shows a strength of the vision that should have been carried throughout the entire game.
Don’t fight, run
The idea that finding yourself in combat is a kind of failure in itself begins with the difficulty settings. Master difficulty doesn’t allow any civilian kills or knockouts, period. You can even set up your own custom difficulty with a number of toggles. You can set up a game where any damage taken leads to a failed mission, or only allow stealth take downs. The "No Kills or Knockouts" setting means that the mission is failed if any human or animal is harmed in any way. The game doesn’t just offer a non-lethal path, it dangles it in front of the player like a carrot.
I played on the "Thief" difficulty rating in order to get through the game, but combat is still heavily punished in what could be considered this "normal" difficulty level. There isn't a focus on stealth, it's a requirement if you hope to survive.
"Garrett can knock people out from behind well enough, and you might be able to take out a few guards with your bow. But in a stand-up confrontation with more than one guard — and maybe even just one! — you're going to get cut down," Arthur Gies wrote in Polygon’s review of the game. "Running and hiding is almost always the more advisable option."
This isn’t hyperbole; most confrontations that came down to combat ended in my death. Using the "swoop" move to rush past enemies that are aware of your presence will lead to a sword or bolt in your back. You only have one melee weapon, the Blackjack, which is a blunt club that is better at knocking people out than it is in taking on a sword.
This can be frustrating at first; Garrett is not a fighter, and his opponents are quite adept at blocking the Blackjack. It only takes one or two hits before you succumb to their attacks. The game doesn't turn into a brawler if you get seen, and Garrett doesn't reach for a sword. You can win these fights, sometimes, but you're always better off running away, and waiting until you have the advantage once again. It's not about pride, it's about survival, and Garrett lays out his reluctance to kill in an early bit of dialog. By the time his knocked-out victims wake up, he should be long gone. Killing isn't part of his job, and even using the more lethal arrows can feel like weakness on the part of the player. Killing is taking the easy way out.
You have options from the shadows
Garrett is only at an advantage when he has the drop on someone, and combat should be treated like a scramble for survival, not a quicker path through a level. The actual mechanics of combat are thin and unsatisfying, but they should be. The game is called Thief, not Fighter, and being seen is a mistake that will most often lead to your summary execution
This isn’t to say Garrett can’t be deadly, or that non-lethal is the only way to play. An arrow with a sharp tip works as a one-hit kill if you can line up a head shot and fire with your full strength. You can take down enemies from above as well as behind. There are choke arrows which release gas that cause enemies to cough, allowing you to bludgeon them to death. Flash bombs allow you to blind and startle the enemies, so you can then run and hide if you’re seen.
The game is often depressingly linear, which limits the creative ways you can use this arsenal, but the weapons are crafted with one theme: Garrett must make sure he has a checkmate before initiating aggression. If you've been seen, you've failed the most basic requirements of your job. It's your job to control the circumstances and timing of engagement to your advantage, at least in the few places where the game allows for greater agency on the part of the player.
Thief stumbles in so many ways that having it succeed in this area is more frustrating than pleasing. You don't lose a few points or blow an achievement if you get caught going toe to toe with an armed adversary, you will most likely lose your life. Once a guard draws his sword your best bet is to find a way to run, and quickly.
This is how it should be, and shows the kind of uncompromising adherence to the game's theme that should have been more common in its design.