There are times as a reviewer when you know that a game is going to be something memorable. Viewing Timespinner on Steam for the first time—browsing through screenshots, watching trailers, and looking at the details below highlighting the story and features—I could see the care, effort, and ambition put forth into the product. Its design superb, story intriguing, genre enticing—I was convinced this would become my latest tranquil cup of tea. Even if I were to not receive a review copy, I could see myself watching this title extensively, waiting for ample opportunity to dig in. Thankfully, a review copy arrived.
What I originally saw was all there: great sprite work and aesthetic detail combined with all the basic flavors of Metroidvania that had me gushing. Its story easily immersible and everything down to the most minute detail was hauntingly cinematic and spectacular. With more experience, the game began to lose that luster it found success with early on. As the content continued to build and the intentions of its narrative cleared, a growing discomfort began to build, fighting inwardly with the blind loyalty to simply enjoy the game for what it was: a love letter to ’90s Metroidvania titles with a call for understanding. A plethora of emotions, though perhaps not all of them positive, await those willing to give the game their time.
Timespinner is available on Steam for your regional pricing.
Expansion is not always the most recommendable tactic with stories in a less-than-ten-hour game, though Timespinner does well enough to keep it adequately compelling, at least to start the journey with. Lunais is part of a clan that holds a secret: they hold those capable of time-manipulating magic tasked with time-traveling to keep the clan safe from harm. When an unexpected attack unfolds, Lunais is sent to an unknown part of time, waking up in a desolate space filled with hostile creatures. With this basic scenario, it invites the player-link through the use of an ignorant character learning along with them. Like Star Wars, Axiom Verge, or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild before this, it’s a type of storytelling device that has worked very well in the past, and only worked to raise my expectations further.
Its continuation begins to sour somewhat as more characters are introduced to the central plot. Timespinner eventually provides a sort of mini-hub for the player to interact with friendly NPCs, who provide side quests, support (through items and equipment upgrades), and lots of dialogue. Should one choose to do all they can with these characters (and the game nudges you ever-so-slightly into doing so), expect a variety of different fetch quests and bonus material somewhat ajar from the major plot. To this effect, it becomes somewhat of a double-edged sword; partaking in everything these NPCs have to offer provides extra context into the details of the warring clans and the benefits of human interaction. Simultaneously, it breaks the pacing of the main quest dramatically, especially if one chooses to do everything possible starting out. It’s entirely possible to weave these side quests with the main quest properly, but many may fall behind at some point and end up hampering the immersion they could have with either story presented.
Concerning these friendly NPCs, and to some extent Lunais herself, there is some notable distinctions about their priorities and personal convictions that differ greatly from what the majority is used to in their daily lives (and especially in gaming). The level of progressive political messaging is incredibly prevalent in Timespinner, its grip tightening as the player moves closer to the endgame. Subjects such as homosexuality/bisexuality, polygamy/polyamory, and gender identity are highlighted in multiple conversations with said NPCs, and one could make an argument for underlying toxic masculinity with the intentions of the antagonists.
Had Timespinner brought minimal attention to these subjects, I likely wouldn’t have felt the need to discuss it, as is my own convinction. However, with as transparent as the story wishes to make these messages shown, I can’t help but feel they’re not handled properly in the context of the world-breaking situation of the major plot. With more time, I feel there could be more impact with some of the realizations and confessions these characters share, collectively bridging the despair of what the future holds and the cathartic behavior of living life under the pretense of its creeping end. It almost seems as though the writing wished to employ every possible bit of progressive political messaging as possible in such a short span of time. The result feels a little more than hamfisted.
In a more general view, what Timespinner‘s narrative consists of is fairly straightforward, highlighted by world-building pick-ups in the form of letters, scattered memories, and electronic files to provide context. What it all comes down to in the end could be interpreted as simple good versus evil. Lunais wants revenge for what happened to her, but eventually realizes that that alone shouldn’t drive her. The enemy nation (I guess you could call it that) wishes for power, because with power comes control, and control is a hard proposition to resist. What eventually amounts to what is right or wrong is heavily favored in Lunais’s altruistic mindset, with the villains playing their roles as the counterpoint and little else. Less realistic and more idealistic, the better quality of Timespinner‘s story is one of immersive escapism, wishing for a better world with better people with better morals, placed in a right versus wrong scenario as old as time itself.
Before delving in, I want to make something perfectly clear, above all other factors: Timespinner is great fun for intermediate lovers of Metroidvania titles. I finished this game in three sittings, including one where I spent four hours on it without break. The game is hard to put down, especially with the prospect of discovering a since-restricted area with a new item or power. As said before, the basic flavors of Metroidvania are all here, and with it being among my favorite game genres, I naturally had a good time with it. Whether good or bad, Timespinner is, (slightly) above all, very enjoyable to play.
One has three means of attack: melee attacks (via magic melee orbs), long-range attacks (or special attacks?), and passive orb abilities (not automatically a form of attack). Throughout Lunais’s journey, she will discover a large collection of orb types that alter her attacks, which work better or worse dependent on the enemy. Long-range attacks and passive orb abilities can be “bought” (Created? Crafted?) through an alchemist, with abilities and attacks ranging from giant laser beams, a soul explosion, and the ability to scope out secret passageways. There are many nifty things one can do to add onto their offensive arsenal, along with the soft RPG elements that come with the “vania” side of the Metroidvania moniker. One is also bound to find multiple chests throughout the environment, containing important quest items, armor to equip oneself with, and even familiars.
For all that this game does right, there’s much that also sends forth the tragedy of overambition, even one as integral to the purpose of the game as time manipulation. With the press of a single button, the player can stop freeze the screen for a limited time, with its meter presented as an hourglass full of sand next to the health bar. Through my playtime with Timespinner, I barely used this possibility unless I felt I had to. I did so when there was no other means to progress, and occasionally near the end when I was more searching for hidden passageways and didn’t want to deal with enemy swarms. Otherwise, with how simple the implementation of stopping time is, there’s only so much the developer can do with it, ironically making someone with the title of Time Guardian rely so little on it that it ends up becoming a vaguely-remembered last resort.
My wording in describing the game as one for “intermediate” lovers of the genre was a careful term; everything one would expect from the genre is here, but it does little to improve on or, in some regards, match the greats of the past. In terms of difficulty, I feel it’s noteworthy to mention I never died once during my playthrough of the normal mode. Many of the melee orbs gained through the journey are simply found in chests, as well as familiars and other goodies. There are very few real puzzles to the game, with many (outside of vague secret passageways) chests being accessible through basic exploration. Certain orbs—ones that have a good duo of range and power—tend to have a good advantage over others with more specific means of extermination.
The foundation of Timespinner is one any casual player can pick up and have a good time with—myself included. Bonus points go to those who generally enjoy the Metroidvania genre and thrive under the mental fortitude that comes with backtracking and experimentation. What it lacks, however, is complexity, with a lot of features simply showing up, rather than having any proper build-up. It gets to a point, especially later on, where items simply feel like they’re being thrown at you in rapid succession. “Rushed” would be one word, but it isn’t quite to that point; perhaps “impatient” would suffice. One could also simply run through the entire game without hardly changing their general build at all. There were many points where I felt this game would wholly benefit from a few more hours of total gametime.
On one short final note, I felt the need to discuss the large number of long, straight corridors in this game, as there are very many of them. So many, in fact, that I made a mental note to include somewhere in my review that this game has many long, straight corridors. I realize the map is fairly large and there are many rooms that are designed to be a tad more complex than others, but the sheer number of times I recall simply going from one side of a room to another is a little off-putting. Many of the areas in Timespinner are imaginative and have great atmosphere, with some even giving me chills upon entering (Amadeus Laboratory), but also have some instances of lazy level design.
Up to this point, the tone of the review could be seen as primarily negative, but in context, a lot of what I have discussed are minor issues. What it amounts to is a game with a lot of basic things done well with little boils that ruin an altogether great experience, or missing links that prevent me from enjoying it further. For all that’s there, there’s just as much (and likely more) to like than to dislike about Timespinner. What I feel to be the game’s achilles’ heel is overambition in the face of limited time. I can feel the desire to make the game as powerfully emotional and functionally efficient as possible, but these cracks in the road bump me up a little too noticeably to be totally comfortable with the ride.
Graphics & Audio
While the in-game sprite design of Lunais is a little less impressive than everything else and the facial design of the characters aren’t quite to my preference (I prefer Eastern designs), what remains is truly beautiful. The assortment of environments, characters, orbs, items, creatures, bosses—everything is remarkable. One of the best-looking games I’ve played for review thus far, and that’s including a couple AAA titles. What doesn’t always work with the writing and dialogue is lifted partially by the precision of the cutscenes and the mastery of sprite animation at work, easily lifting the immersiveness to beyond normal levels. I personally love the way the enemies change dependent on the time, with their general appearance being similar, but their equipment and design reflecting the time they inhabit. It’s a subtle touch to make the world map almost the exact same between both times, with distinct differences being enforced only through its aesthetic make-up.
While not quite as engrossing as the visual counterpart, the sound design behind Timespinner is also quite commendable. There are a few tracks here and there that I really enjoy even outside the context of the game, and I would compare its quality to that of the Shantae series of games. Equally upbeat and eerie, dependent on the situation (Amadeus Laboratory), most tracks fit situations perfectly, with a great emphasis on a fantasy-like orchestration that fits the general type of fantasy game it’s going for. From the tracks that play in the background to the constant shrieks of hostile creatures, there’s not much about the sound design I can really downplay. The (minimal) voice acting is good, the attack sounds are encouraging and nice, and there’s no sacrifice for other purposes.