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Timespinner (PC) Review

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Timespinner is a game with a lot to live up to. This Metroidvania released in a crowded genre while wearing its inspirations firmly on its sleeve: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, one of the most influential and highly rated games of all time, as well the portable Castlevania games that came after it. Developed by Lunar Ray Games and published by Chucklefish, it has the player assuming the role of Lunais, a Timekeeper in training on a quest for revenge against the empire who murdered her friends and family. Armed with the time-manipulating powers of the titular Timespinner, she is determined to alter the course of history so that the Lachiem Empire never rises to power and invades her home. Players will pursue this goal by exploring the Lachiem home world across two time periods while battling enemies, collecting upgrades, and learning more about the planet’s history. While the plot of Timespinner is ambitious, the core gameplay should be very familiar to most players. Does Timespinner do enough to elevate itself beyond its inspirations and provide a unique experience?

This review is based on the V1.032 PC build of the game. Timespinner is also available on the Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.

It really can’t be understated just how clear Timespinner’s inspirations are, even the menus are designed nearly identically to the ones from the post-SOTN Castlevania games. Much like those titles, Timespinner is a side-scrolling action platformer set in an interconnected world. Progress through the game’s world is gated behind special items or characters upgrades, such as a higher jump or the ability to breathe underwater, and as the player progresses more of the world becomes accessible. Combat plays out like a side-scrolling action game, but stats and gear determine the amount of damage the player can dish out and receive. This is a tried and true formula that, when done well, causes the player to become intimately familiar with a game’s world and offers a satisfying sense of progression as the main character grows in strength in tandem with the player’s skill.

One aspect of the post-SOTN Castlevania games that always stood out to me was the staggering number of options the player had at their disposal in combat, and Timespinner initially seems like it might offer something similar. Melee weapons come in the form of orbs, and since they can be dual wielded the player has the option of either attacking twice as fast with the same orb type or alternating between two different types as they attack. Amulets grant the player long range attacks which drain a meter refilled by landing attacks with orbs. Different types of familiars can also be equipped, which essentially act as A.I companions that can also be controlled by a second player. Orbs and familiars deal different types of elemental damage which certain enemies might be weak to, and level up individually as they are used.

Ultimately Timespinner’s combat system is undermined by two things: variety and the game’s difficulty. Compared to the game’s inspirations there are nowhere near as many weapons at the player’s disposal. It certainly doesn’t help that some orbs are functionally clones of each other with minor variations in terms of attack speed or elemental damage. This issue might have been mitigated if the player was placed in situations that forced them to make the most of their limited arsenal, but across my entire playthrough this never happened. Timespinner is very easy, as enemies often deal negligible amounts of damage and healing items are plentiful. Partway through the game after doing some sidequests and exploring some optional areas my character became so overpowered I was steamrolling through every encounter, even major story bosses.

Keeping the elemental weaknesses of enemies in mind can certainly help you kill them more efficiently, and the game encourages this early on with an upgrade that lets you swap between three different builds on the fly, but it is hardly necessary. Wailing away on enemies with your favorite orb is more than enough for every situation. I would have enjoyed some combat scenarios that forced me to consider and adjust my build, as I always find games with combat systems that combine planning and fast-paced execution to be really engrossing. Although I found the combat disappointing, it isn’t all bad. Attacks are well animated and accompanied by satisfying effects, and the game feels very responsive to play. Bosses are mostly well designed with varied attack patterns that encourage smart positioning, and the last few bosses do offer a decent challenge. There is also a “Nightmare” difficulty that causes enemies to deal massive amounts of damage, but it cannot be selected until the game is completed on Normal.

The game’s level design doesn’t offer much of a challenge either. There are far too many long and empty corridors dotted with enemies that are completely devoid of any platforming obstacles. Aside from the occasional falling rocks or pit of spikes, enemies are pretty much the only things that will attempt to pose a threat as you explore Timespinner’s world. I have much more praise for how the game is structured, however. Although the first hour of the game is linear, once you have access to the past the game opens up a bit. Progress through the game becomes entirely driven by the player’s own sense of curiosity and adventure, there are no markers on your map or NPCs telling you exactly where you need to go. This leads to the player developing a more intimate understanding of how the world is laid out and discovering more optional areas and upgrades.

Time travel is a central theme in the game’s plot, but during gameplay it is seriously underutilized. The player can manipulate time in two ways: an upgrade acquired in the first area allows the player to temporarily freeze time, and another allows the player to travel between the past and future of the Lachiem home world. The player will occasionally be asked to freeze time to use enemies or falling obstacles as platforms, and there is an instance early on where the player needs to use it to cross a collapsing bridge… and that’s roughly the extent that this mechanic is explored. It can also be used in boss fights to help reposition yourself to avoid attacks, but I rarely felt the need to use it. Tailoring many of the game’s obstacles around this mechanic could have helped give this game a unique identity to help it stand out amongst other similar games, but this mechanic ended up feeling like an afterthought.

Much of the game’s plot involves Lunais learning more about the history of the Lachiem home world, and the ability to explore the past and future of this world feels like it was implemented mainly in service to this plot instead of any interesting gameplay ideas. I only noticed one type of obstacle in the entire game that needed to be bypassed by doing something in the past. There was an instance of actions I took in the past affecting a piece of the environment in the future in a way I wasn’t expecting, which was a nice bit of attention to detail. It is also interesting to see how the environment in the past and future remain similar in layout but different in other ways (a lake becomes completely dried up and desolate in the future, for example). Ultimately though, this mechanic ended up feeling like another lost opportunity. I feel like there should have been more situations where the player is forced to think about the world chronologically in order to progress.

Early on the player unlocks a hub that fills with NPCs who offer sidequests. Unfortunately, nearly every one of these is a quest to kill a certain number of enemies or collect items, the sort of thing you’d normally find in an MMO. They are a chore to complete and rarely offer any meaningful rewards for doing so. There is some charming dialogue to be found by reaching the end of some of these character’s questlines that help flesh them out, but I wouldn’t have had the motivation to actually finish any of them if I wasn’t reviewing this game.

As you can probably tell from these screenshots, Timespinner is a very pretty game. Character sprites are charming, and backgrounds have a detailed and painterly look to them. Some backgrounds are filled with animated elements, and some areas have details like light shafts or animated fog particles. One aspect of the game’s visuals that really stood out to me was the imagery found in many areas in the future. The bizarre far-future architecture and equally bizarre (or downright nightmarish) enemy designs are extremely unique and really left an impression. Areas and enemies in the past are a little more generic, but still display the same level of care in how they were designed. The music was composed using instrument samples deliberately designed to evoke the soundtracks of PS1 games, and every track suits the atmosphere of the area it was assigned to perfectly.

Timespinner puts a heavy emphasis on story, and the one it aims to tell is very ambitious. Lunais, our playable character, is on a quest to avenge the death of her mother and clansmen by changing history to ensure the empire that killed them never rises to power in the first place. I like the game’s mix of sci-fi and fantasy tropes, as the plot mixes evil spacefaring empires and far future technology with magic, demons, and otherworldly beings. On top of this, it becomes clear early on that our main character’s view of the Lachiem Empire is oversimplified and lacking perspective. Much of the game will be spent learning about the history of this empire, which will reveal things aren’t quite as simple as Lunais thought.

Although I found learning about this world’s history compelling, I had a few problems with Timespinner’s story. First, I didn’t like the main character. Lunais is very proud of her psychic abilities and can act immature. She also doesn’t seem to react much to the many revelations concerning the history of the Lachiem Empire and remains very single minded in her pursuit of revenge against its ruler for almost the entire game. I felt very disconnected from her, as she seemed completely unaffected by revelations that I felt should have caused her to pause and consider her actions. This game has multiple endings and depending on the actions of the player they might see a change in Lunais’ behavior. For me, this change felt very abrupt and unsatisfying.

The other problem with Timespinner’s story is that it is simply too big and ambitious for its own good. There are enough ideas in this game to fill an entire series of fantasy space opera novellas, with all its inter-planetary politics, demons, ancient technology, magic, time travel and more besides. Condensing all this information into the game’s roughly 7-hour runtime is a bit much, the player barely has time to digest new pieces of information before another revelation demands their attention. Although the core narrative isn’t overly complex, it can feel hard to grasp due to the overload of information that can be dumped on the player. I respect what the developers attempted to do here, but something simpler would have better suited a game of this length.

There is an aspect to this game’s story that I feel much more positive about, and I could see it being reason enough for some players to check this game out. This game has many LGBTQ+ characters throughout its narrative, both as side characters and major figures in the overarching plot. Completing the game’s sidequests will occasionally trigger dialogue where characters will discuss their sexuality and how it has affected their life. Seeing characters openly discuss topics like this is unfortunately rare to see in an action game, dialogue like this is usually reserved for more purely narrative-driven titles. I found it refreshing, and an aspect of Timespinner that helps give it its own identity. Somewhat related to this is that Timespinner maintains the Castlevania tradition of having a few “sexy enemies” (succubi, sirens, you know how it is) and ensures that there are female AND male variations for all of them, so everyone gets something to, uh, enjoy?

Ultimately it might seem like I was very hard on Timespinner. The main issue with this game is that it simply doesn’t do enough to help it stand out from other Metroidvanias that have come out in recent years. For as polished, ambitious, and pretty as it is, without any meaningful or unique mechanics to call its own the many ways it pales in comparison to its competition and inspirations are what ended up standing out for me. I feel players who have been enjoying this genres’ resurgence in recent years are very likely to come away from this game feeling the same way I did. Unless you’re looking for an easy Metroidvania or feel strongly about supporting action games with LGBTQ+ characters, there are many better options out there and likely even more to come.

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About BlackAdlerone of us since 2:08 PM on 04.15.2020

You've reached BlackAdler's game review blog! Here I'll be experimenting with game reviews for titles that I haven't seen getting a lot of attention that I think look interesting, probably using a lot of words.

I've been playing games since I was young on Nintendo consoles and the PC ecosystem, but there are a lot of gaps in my experience of the game industry as a whole I've been slowly working on filling.

This review blog is an experiment to encourage myself to play games I've heard very little about and approach playing them with the intention of developing a critical perspective, and sharing it! I hope you find the results of my efforts interesting.