Born in the 80s, I grew up alongside the Metroid and Castlevania series. But up until a few years ago, the only game I had played in the Metroidvania genre was Wonderboy. Great game, but hardly a thorough education on 2D action platformers with an emphasis on exploration. While I had little genre literacy when I backed Timespinner on Kickstarter, the combat, pixel art, and music by Jeff Ball were absolutely delightful and sold me immediately.
Timespinner is the long realized dream of Bodie Lee, founder and driving force behind Lunar Ray Games. While he began dreaming up pieces of the game in his childhood, the first playable iteration began as a final project during Lee’s studies. It later found a new life as his side project while he worked full time before taking the plunge to make Timespinner his focus in the summer of 2014.
You play as Lunais - a member of the Winderia clan living under threat of persecution from the Lacheis Empire. The Winderians use a time bending device to send someone back to a previous time period to warn their people and move their home, thus staving off eradication and keeping the titular device out of imperial hands for just a little bit longer.
Lunais’ journey starts out when that tried and true practice goes horribly awry due to a botched warning. You’re left to pick up the pieces and figure out how to prevent the Lacheis from finally eradicating your people. The main story felt well designed and the story never overstayed its welcome. I scoured the map for the documents and other collectables I could find, enjoying both the journey and the narrative payoff.
I do want to highlight two especially positive story elements. One, most of the characters hailed from the LGBT community. It was treated as perfectly normal - a lovely change of pace from the less than stellar state of affairs in the real world. Two, the game let me know early on that it would avoid time paradoxes - which are hand wavey and awful! So if you share this rather specific trope hating predilection, know that you have nothing to worry about here.
Combat wise, you start off with a set of blue orbs that attack directly in front of you and a wave based special that shoots lots of orbs, also right in front of you. Both through main storyline and by exploring some of the side areas, you will unlock new orbs and specials to shake things up. They can also be used in exploration to open secret areas and shortcuts - for instance the fire orbs can remove vines previously too thick to pass through.
With few exceptions, the orbs generally fall into some variation of attacking in front of you or a quarter circle downward chop. The plasma orbs’ tracking attack made reaching some enemies much more convenient and became a staple in one of my swappable gear sets. The radiant orb shoots out a light attack around you - pun intended. The ice orbs are another matter, though. I think they were meant to bomb enemies below, but that never came up. What’s more, the animation made me a little sad because I thought that Lunais was constantly dropping an ice cream cone.
When the credits rolled, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the orbs were underutilized. While the pace of unlocks kept combat feeling fresh, I noticed that some orbs were definitely less useful. It’s a minor quibble since I enjoyed the combat throughout, but either cutting some of the orbs or finding ways to make them stand out more would have made the whole system feel much more sharply focused.
Timespinner was not without more notable stumbles, though. Sidequests consist of the uninspiring “gather or kill x things” fair. And outside the main storyline, the time switching mechanic has little impact on the world around you. While not a deal breaker, I could not stop thinking about how sidequests focused on how Lunais’ time travel impacted the world around her would have been much more satisfying and thematically appropriate. That said, you should stick with all the sidequests as there are some nice story bits as a reward.
While Timespinner does fail to completely capitalize on its core conceit, both the main story and sidequests establish a credible world with some noticeable parallels to our own contemporary concerns - particularly around the national dialogue regarding privilege. One of the NPCs struggles with her internal conception of her native Valetia. Benefiting all her life from the caste system that lifted her up above others, she struggled at first to see her fellow citizens’ suffering because it went against her core belief that Valetia is exceptional.
Brodie Lee and his team have built something special. The animation flourishes, varied boss design, and numerous goodies to track down all show a loving attention to detail. And for those who a good challenge, the game can be played through again in a mode where you are capped at level one. I definitely didn’t find everything, a certain merchant crow implied heavily that there is a true secret boss to find. I can’t wait to see what the community - especially the speedrunners - uncover as we all master this game.
Score: 5 out 5 (Highly Recommended)
Timespinner was developed by Lunar Ray Games and published by Chucklefish. It is available on Steam for $19.99.