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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Timespinner Is My Favorite Game of 2019 So Far

I suppose it's not too surprising that Timespinner is one of my favorite games of the year. After all, it has a lot in common with Iconoclasts, which was one of my favorite games from 2018: both are Metroidvanias designed largely by one person over several years with a focus on deeper, theme-heavy narrative, intricate world building, and a lovingly crafted set of characters. And there are even some overlaps in the themes Bodie Lee (the designer, artist, and programmer of Timespinner's Lunar Ray Games) and Joakim Sandberg (aka Konjak, the developer behind Iconoclasts) choose to focus on.

But the two spiral off beautifully into their own little corners, each exploring those story and game design choices separate, to the extent that they feel almost like counterpoints, and it makes me appreciate both of them even more. But we'll get into that more in a bit. Let's just start at the basics, though: Timespinner is a Metroidvania platformer from Lunar Ray Games released on most current systems (I personally played it on my Switch). The game tells the epic story of Lunais, a girl from a small, peaceful society that's constantly in fear of interstellar Lachiem Empire looming above them. When Lachiem finally makes their move, Lunais uses her people's ancient relic, the Timespinner, to travel through time and space in hopes to stop them before their attack ever begins. It's a good enough basic set-up for a large scale space opera story, but the story here goes deeper than just the surface-level details.

We'll come back to that in a minute, though, since it's getting into spoiler territory. Before doing that, let me hit the more general stuff. The gameplay here is all great; the movement feels as good as it should, and the RPG elements give a nice extra bit of complexity and a sense of progression. The world layout is some of my favorite as well; Timespinner does a good job at teasing you with locked doors to come back to, new abilities that open the world map, hints at secrets, and more. And the two overlaying maps, set across two vastly different time periods, do a nice job of lining up in ways that make you say "Ooooohh" and feel smart once you catch on to the clues it's laying down (both narratively and gameplay-wise).

The pixel art is just fantastic; it stands with the best of the best from the 16-bit era and takes me back to playing the Super Nintendo as a kid. The same goes for the music, really; if you played any sort of “epic” 16-bit RPG or Metroidvania, Timespinner learned from the best and perfectly recaptures that feeling. The characters and their designs all look great and I love them, but my favorite understated strength of the game’s art direction might be the world design.

The gameworld, as the same locations separated by centuries, are a good example of all the small bits that go into setting a scene. You’re initially set up in the modern, sterile, dystopian version of Lachiem, and every aspect of it contributes to that. The music is harsh, people are sparse, and dark machines hound you in mechanical corridors. Even relatively humane locales, like the library, still feel alienating in small ways.

Then, you get dropped back in the pastoral past, and even as a harsh, largely-unexplored planet with a technically-lower population, it just feels so much more welcoming. The game’s layout does a good job of allowing you to accidentally wander into places you’ve been before, and the transformation it takes to get to the bad future version is so shocking that it may take you a while to make the connection that you found an area you’ve been before (even when the landscape hasn’t been totally decimated).

Not every game can stir emotions this noticeable in me, but I found myself subconsciously attacking my to-do list with a heavy focus on the past because of the discomfort from the future world and the relative pleasantness of the past. And to avoid big spoilers, I’ll just say that one of the final sections in the game, set in the future world, maximizes this emotional tug, with a design that gave me the biggest sense of unease I’ve felt while exploring a game level since the True Lab section of Undertale. It’s a well-executed surprise, and I really wanted to get out of there as fast as I could.

Of course, while the art direction and design does a lot of that work, the writing carries a lot of weight here as well, and it might be my favorite part of Timespinner, the part that kept me up thinking about it in between play sessions, desperate to get back. Of course, digging into that will hit spoiler territory, so if you want to go in as blind as possible, know that I fully recommend this game if any part of this sounds interesting, and you can come back to read the rest of this once you try it for yourself.

If you want to go a little further though, I’ll keep things vague at first, to serve as a “themes to look for while you play”, but give another jumping off point when I get deep into specifics.

--spoiler break--