If the genius of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is to be considered as such today, in terms of retro ‘fashionable’ game mechanics and tragic-yet-forgivably charming world building, fans such as myself have some small duty in demanding high quality above overly ambitious crowd-funded pitches. If you’re prone to fawn over that grand ‘retro’ hit as it was considered back in 1997 then, by what rubric do you separate populist pandering from inspirational passion projects? In 2018, and for decades previous, the metroidvania (er, exploration based 2D action-platformer) has been cash cow to many independent game developers and a teething ritual for those who would bite far more than they could chew. I’ve wasted hundreds of dollars keeping up with what I’d consider wildly mixed results. For what it is worth (~$20.00 +tax) Timespinner is a beautifully realized singular vision that slightly improves upon metroidvania’s peak vision circa 2008.
What trash exists to sour the sub-genre’s formerly holy niche? Disappointing rogue-like takes provide hollow-headed, meaningless time sink based on luck beyond skill. Dark Souls-like game mechanics lose sight of the old soul of the genre for the sake of tension building nonsense (my apologies to Hollow Knight). The art of the Metroid style video game is and should be just that; A massive ant farm like galleria of dioramas that loop together and build exploitable arteries of exploration upon steadily upgraded abilities all within increasingly compelling landscapes. The trouble with the explosive trend of emulating this style comes with below par design ethos and fetid artistic sensibilities. Composers and pixel artists involved in the classics of the genre were legends at the top of their post-Super Nintendo/Genesis glory before going underground (to, the Saturn? I guess) for the sake of the tacky, rudimentary polygon dominant Playstation era. The deathly pruning of 2D pixel art beyond 1996 was a devastation for so many. The savior for the artform arose with increasingly powerful handheld Nintendo hardware that provided gorgeously lush and harmonious orchestrations of the artform. There they thrived and so did I for the next decade.
Ogle the streamlined sci-fi bliss of Metroid all you like, it was Castlevania as a handheld series that consistently broke new ground for the ‘metroidvania’ with each iteration. Systemic functionality, clever abilities, complex combat systems, quality of life features and grand boss fight spectacle all progressed without any damning reversions. With Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin and Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia came a point of exhaustion as recycled assets, aging hardware, and plot inspiration had been stretched for a full seven games. Try as you may to find replacement or vague continuation of mechanics beyond this dead end, no series has reached such a confident peak in the last decade yet Lunar Ray Games‘ Timespinner smartly recaptures the full experience (art, mechanics, music, gameplay, progression) of that magic with impressive detail. The trouble is that there just isn’t enough game there to support the amount of time you’ll want to spend with it.
In borrowing from the dual worlds and questing of Portriat of Ruin, the conjured mix-and-match weapon/ability systems of Order of Ecclesia‘s glyphs system, and the inspiration of the musical bombast of Yasonori Mitsuda; Timespinner begins to believably represent the best aspects of those now classic handheld metroidvania adventures while appearing with an artistic style reminescent of later Squaresoft and Enix Super Famicom games (Seiken Densetsu 3, Bahamut Lagoon, Star Ocean, Rudra No Hihou) and at times Majyuuou. The loop of rewards for exploration and experimentation is detailed down to a science here and ends up a grotesquely addictive experience. The impact of the game is first within its nostalgic values and obvious nods to classic video games and this makes sense because the original Kickstarter campaign for Timespinner describe their (his, Lunar Ray Games is Bodie Lee) vision as taking influence from Star Ocean‘s storytelling and world building, Mega Man X‘s sharp controls, and exploration of the Castlevania series. What begins as a very polished ‘genre’ video game evolves into a compelling meditation upon empathy and shines a necessary light upon the fallout resultant from an increasingly polarized, imperialist society.
You begin Timespinner with short introduction to Lunais, a blue haired young lady from Winderia who is of the magic wielding elite supplanted as a timecop (basically!) in small opposition to the imperialist Lachiem Empire. Her gift for telekinetic powers and sacred bloodline primes Lunais to become a timekeeper, the game makes it clear that while magic-capable peoples are the ‘higher class’ of people in this world to become a timekeeper is a selfless act to manage the flow of time and go between eras effectively offering their ‘clan’ a post-apocalypse redo while also erasing ones own existence. Lunais pays the ultimate price in losing her family and community when Lachiem‘s general (duh, it is her father) attacks as she is on her way to initiation. Her mother sacrifices herself when using, and unfortunately shattering, the titular time travel device, the Timespinner. Lunais appears in the Lachiem of a very distant past, a thousand years previous. What begins as a tale of rote revenge from a snarky, often emotionally daft young woman evolves into a story that is whimsical, tonally militant, and largely clever in its message of inclusive perspective and focus upon the moral dilemmae that war, imperialism, dehumanization, and ‘genocide-for-the-people’ bring. To be as frank as possible the plot and story is not only told in an artificially convoluting matter but it seems that Lee’s vision ends up unable to focus on the arc above the inclusion.
Lunais is a bland spirit to say the least before she begins to reflect upon the lessons in empathy and humility that the ‘found’ narrative and side-quest lines each provide. If it troubles you that all side-quests outside of the main progression of the game deal with LGBTQ+ issues in a human, non-exploitative way some of its message (or your own self-conscious values system) might warrant a deeper analysis. In fact homosexual romance, transgender identity, polyamory, a few sexual double entendres, and some awkwardly written relationship dialogue are all perhaps just slightly outside of Lee‘s capabilities as a writer but it is easy to admire the ambitions covered within what is admittedly a small amount of text across 20 or so optional side-quests. Some of the characters’ dialogue is written with a skew more fitting for teenaged characters rather than maverick adults, this provides an unpleasant ‘literally translated anime’ feeling to the character interactions. The campfire scene when you’ve finished all of the side-quests is far too awkwardly presented to hope to have the impact intended, but I admired the attempt. Granted some of this will absolutely appear off topic and off subject. You might have signed up for a sci-fi/high fantasy action RPG metroidvania and feel that it is odd to receive some very direct and inclusive discussion of LGBTQ+ sexuality and relationships. I understand the surprise that this dialogue offers but to Lee’s credit the direct and open nature of these elements is entirely unique among video games and will be absolutely powerful for folks unsure of where they stand in today’s world.
These are very human sidebars that help elucidate some humanity on both sides of a deadly cosmic war taking place in a futuristic genocidal hell. While greater arc of the game focuses on empathy and understanding between perceived enemies, good must ultimately defeat evil. Side-story and personal interactions serve as a distraction from Timespinner’s overall lack of substantive world building. Yes, the world is there but the the plot is very thinly coherent and the characters never distinguish themselves in a meaningful way. This is compounded by found dialogue (paper notes and downloaded files) that all appear written in one ‘voice’. Each piece isn’t stylized enough to reflect a separation of authorship and ultimately the shared (perceived) voice of the author homogenizes and reads like bad fan fiction. If the underdeveloped story is inconsequential to you, join the club, every other aspect of the game is impeccably achieved.
The hook of the gameplay comes easily thanks to an equip system nearly identical to that of Order of Ecclesia’s glyph system but instead of absorbing and combining glyphs to create a ‘spells as weapons’ format Lunais uses her telekinetic powers to activate magic sets of orbs (on in each hand) that can be used in tandem or in various combinations. Like Shanoa, Lunais can equip gear that will change the effects of equipped orb powers but this is more of a central system in Timespinner as you equip one ring (passive effect) and one necklace (magic ability) along with two orbs for each of three ‘loadout’ slots. With over 15 orb types that, once possessed, allow for synthesis of an associated pair of ring and necklace there are endless options for combat. It completely absurd to consider how short of a game Timespinner is compared to the sheer amount of time it would take to power up each of the orbs and accessories. Orbs, accessories, and Lunais herself all have (currently) uncapped leveling systems that I believe allow for infinite New Game+ playthroughs but the issue is that even with an extended bout of exploration on your first playthrough (minus the hidden areas and bosses) will boast about 7-8 hours of gameplay and likely less than an average level of 50-60 between Lunais and her effects. The game also allows the player to equip armor and accessories in a different menu but these are typically drops from enemies or rewards for quests that don’t affect combat as much as overall level. I cannot escape the feeling that Lunar Ray has crammed 25-30 hours worth of compelling systems into a very easy and very short game.
The trouble with wanting more time with that initial playthrough is that it sounds as if I might be ungrateful or unimpressed with what is there. This is not the case. In fact I was like a child, writhing and screaming on the floor, caterwauling for more environs to explore and prod through because Timespinners creates a lovely collage of past and present environments to re-explore. There is essentially two versions of one large map of Lachiem to explore 1000 years in the past and in the future where Lunais’ family and friends were killed off. This amounts to two paintings/levels in Potrait of Ruin plus the main castle. Even if the enemies aren’t clever with their AI patterning, and the roster of baddies is fairly thin, exploration is the supreme draw of the game’s design. It all just appears halfway there: Small numbers of enemies appear on each screen and never in combinations of more than two types. The Sands of Time-esque powers are completely glossed over and essentially useless unless you want to freeze an enemy (or boss) and jump on their head. Areas often hit dead ends rather than looping around to access points and exploration heavily relies on frequent teleportation points (which thankfully also allow for time travel between eras). Despite all of these seemingly unfinished or poorly integrated ideas Timespinners is a joy to play thanks to gorgeous pixel art, absolutely perfect controls, and a highly successful “child of the 90’s” soundtrack from composer Jeff Ball.
Soak this shit in deep because it is the best metroidvania soundtrack we’ve gotten in ages as Ball employs the sci-fi apropos instrumentation and prog-rock influences of Motoi Sakuraba‘s work in the Star Ocean series and applies a heaving dose of Michiru Yamane’s clever 80’s metal meets modern classical approach with direct influences from her works in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. While many have referenced the works of Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger) within Timespinner‘s sci-fi/gothic fantasy appropriate soundtrack a closer look at the 90’s works of Hiroki Kikuta (beyond Secret of Mana!) should be a bit closer to the actual result, fidelity and feeling of the compositions (see: Seiken Densetsu 3, Romancing SaGa). As a collection of songs it reads very much like a Castlevania soundtrack regardless of how you spin it. Ball‘s soundtrack is a huge asset to the overall experience of exploration as each new section of the game greets you with a new piece. Timespinner is beautifully scored to the point that I’d even recommend listening to the extraneous stuff on Materia Collective’s Bandcamp page for the OST. Having a soundtrack that is appropriately evocative of the era that the game’s retro style aims for was a big plus for much taste.
Timespinner is the sort of game I will continue playing until I’ve seen and done everything there is to do and that is to say it is one of the best video games I’ve played in 2018. There are obvious flaws and the overall ‘incomplete’ feeling that the small size of the game provides is moderately disappointing. The appeal is undeniable though, as I spent nearly two days on a weekend doing little else beyond playing this game, and this comes after a period of exhaustion resultant from beating the PlayStation 4 version of Hollow Knight a few days previous. It was fast paced, familiar, and I was so intently focused on the gameplay that it blew by seemingly as fast as the content-thin Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon earlier this year. Regardless of the blue balls at the end of the fun I had gotten everything I’d wanted from a modern take on the metroidvania style of video game while playing Timespinner. Left so satiated by the style and gameplay within, I can hardly be bothered to complain about some of the amateurish flaws the roughen the edges of the playthrough. My feelings for this game echo my thoughts on Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled (Nintendo DS, 2009) where it was surely rough around the edges but did its best to honor its influences. In both cases the passion of the project outweighs the fear of potentially exploitative nostalgic pandering. I will no doubt attempt to master the game further beyond that initial playthrough and that is ultimately the highest compliment I can offer in times where there are too many similar options to count.
|Genre||2D Action RPG/Platformer|
|Released||September 26, 2018 | Lunar Ray Games / Chucklefish|
|Platform(s) Reviewed||Playstation 4 Pro [Digital]|
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