When I first came across Timespinner, it looked like a game that ticked a lot of boxes. Indie Kickstarter success? Check. Metroidvania with 2D pixel art? Check. Years and years of development time? Check. It’s easy to dismiss all that these days, but when you sit down with Timespinner, it doesn’t take long for it all to wash over you. This game, aside from a disappointingly busted Vita port, is ludicrously polished. Every inch of it feels designed, and it’s one of the most fluid and responsive games of its kind when it comes to its combat and platforming action. It wears its influences on its sleeve, but is fueled by some ambitious lore that one can tell has had years and years of thought, revision, and tinkering pushing it to the launch date. Timespinner is, to describe it with one word, meticulous.
Lunais in Time
Timespinner is about Lunais, a “Timekeeper” who is part of a small, dying culture that is built around the titular Timespinner, a massive, wheel-like device that allows for time travel. Timekeepers are raised to be sent back in time should any catastrophes hit, and sacrifice themselves in order to save their people and/or the world. Just as Lunais is coming of age, the leader of an evil Empire attacks her village, killing her mother and destroying the Timekeeper in the process. Lunais is blasted into the Empire’s home turf, and with the Timespinner destroyed, she figures her only course of action is revenge.
Using a piece of the Timespinner, Lunais is able to briefly stop time as long as she has enough sand to sustain the ability. She also has magic powers fueled by “Orbs,” which allow her to summon weapons and offensive magic out of thin air in order to defend herself. She even gets the power to summon familiars, little creatures that orbit around her and offer some extra defensive options.
Visually and mechanically, Timespinner immediately evokes Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, a Nintendo DS game that was the final of the “metroidvania” series to bear the actual Castlevania name. In that game, players would collect “glyphs,” which served a super similar purpose to Lunais’ Orbs. Things are different of course, but the inspiration is clear. When Lunais gets an Orb, an Iron Orb for example, she can equip it in one or both of her hands. Using the Iron Orb in particular lets her summon a giant hammer for a single swing, or two if she doubles up. Other Orbs can be different weapons, or various elemental attacks. Orbs can also be upgraded for higher damage not long into the game, so there’s a nice sense of freedom in finding what you like and sticking to it, instead of a more Castlevania-like approach with hard stats.
Lunais can also equip jewelry that gives her an explosive super attack, which are once again clearly Castlevania inspired (albeit functionally distinct). These use up a meter called Aura, which of course is a limited resource that you get more of as you level up or find permanent boosts throughout the map. There’s the Symphony of the Night juke button to round things out, and if you’ve played any of those games you’ll feel right at home with Timespinner. I was quickly short-hopping around to get better aim with my weapon strikes, juking to just avoid enemy attacks, and doing the whole “control your jump trajectory while mashing attack” thing that’s so prevalent to those classics specifically.
You Said Chrono, Though
Yeah, I did. Settle down. Earlier, I said that Timespinner is a meticulous game. And boy howdy is it crammed full of details. Of course, what immediately strikes you in that respect is the game’s visual style, which is very reminiscent of late SNES Squaresoft RPGs. There’s deep colors, multiple back and foreground layers, thorough shading, and of course that familiar style of character sprite. It’s gorgeous! The music is also subdued and haunting, in a way that helps sell the feeling of exploring unknown spaces, which is what the whole metroidvania thing is really about.
Speaking of unknown spaces, Lunais does eventually realize she might be able to piece together the Timespinner, or at least some of it. This leads to time travel! Much like the Castlevania series, what seems like one large map eventually expands to two maps that make the task of finding your way around that much more daunting, and intriguing. Lunais will need to move back and forth between the past and the present, finding things in the past that will help her explore more of the present, and bringing knowledge back to the past in an attempt to change the future.
This time travel angle is bolstered by a story that, according to materials from the game’s creators, has been in the making longer than Timespinner has been in actual development. These games aren’t generally known for their narrative chops, so it’s almost odd to see so much dialogue, and various collectibles that go out of their way to expand the lore. There’s a small codex-like component to the game, which gives you insight on the Timekeepers’ history and culture, the world (or worlds) of the universe, and of course this stuff all intersects with the present scenario and characters you run into along the way. There’s even some sidequests that expand upon what’s going on with extra dialogue and more character development.
Getting Around and Throwing Down
It’s not all great! I mean, it’s mostly great, as I marathoned most of Timespinner in one sitting without realizing it. But there are a couple of snags that got me tripped up and lost in a big way at one specific part of the game. For the most part, the flow is good and makes sense, but there’s a key part of the map that is literally the catalyst for finishing the rest of the game, and it’s a bit too well hidden. In retrospect it should have been obvious to me, but there’s some confusion introduced with the appearance of the quests, some of which seem to not be optional, compounded by a map screen that’s way too small. I often found myself squinting to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, and didn’t find what I actually needed until I took a bit of a leap of faith and found the way out, which was outside of the screen. Again this issue may have been much more trivial if poring over the map wasn’t a source of eye strain.
That’s a minor point of frustration overall though, as otherwise Timespinner is actually quite breezy! A larger map would have been great though, and much easier on the eyes. Speaking of breezy, I found myself surprised at how fair the game is in terms of difficulty. It’s much more forgiving than any of the games that inspired it, and I actually made it through without dying once. As Lunais levels up, there are actually tangible benefits, as her health pool goes up, and the stat increases from new equipment and powered-up Orbs do make a difference. I was taking hits, but I never got cheesed out with huge chunks of damage, and I was able to feel less guilty about taking hits at all and using the occasional item as a result. It felt fair, like I could have easily died if I was less experienced or more careless, but I never felt in danger just from trying to get around the map, either. It’s a good balance that makes focusing on the fun stuff a lot more viable.
Pour One Out for the Vita
Before we wrap things up here, I have to bring up the Vita version. Timespinner comes out just as we’re getting news about the troubled, but brilliant handheld soon going out of production, but it still is a cross-buy game, meaning buying one version entitles you to the other. Unfortunately, the Vita version is totally busted. The game often just hangs up on itself, the framerate slips, and it’s simply impossible to play a game like this that requires combat reflexes and platforming precision. I also tried to move my save from one to the other, and that didn’t seem to be supported either. It’s super disappointing, especially since playing metroidvania games on handheld platforms is, to me, the ideal way to go about it. Hopefully it can be repaired in post-launch updates.
All those years of effort paid off in the creation of an excellent entry in the metroidvania canon, and I hope it pays off in the form of a successful game as well. Timespinner exudes an aura of, “so much effort went into this, dang!” And making my way through it was a joy, both in terms of the look and feel of the world, the inherent appeal of filling in that map, and of course the smoothness and responsiveness of the combat. The experience was novel for all of its obvious nods and inspirations, and enhanced by its own original creativity and storytelling efforts. Timespinner will definitely take a place on the list of games I remember and recommend over the years, and I just wish I could play it on Vita.
Timespinner review code provided by publisher. Version 1.00 reviewed on a Standard PS4 and PS Vita. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.
Timespinner Review September 2018
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