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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--

Like I mentioned at the start, the first point of comparison for the game is Iconoclasts; after all, both are sci-fi/fantasy tales of a determined young woman fighting back against oppressive empires. But that similar framework just serves to highlight all of the ways that they’re different. Timespinner focuses much more intently on the development of its lead, with a supporting cast that’s still involved in the story, but not to the extent that the rest of the party characters in Iconoclasts are.

It’s an interesting decision; the greater access to Lunais’s headspace makes it feel much more like a role you’re playing, and you see her circle of allies in a lot of the same ways she does because you were dropped into their world in the same way she was; you both have no experience with them, need the world explained in the same way, and so on. And because helping them is optional in a way the story of Iconoclasts isn’t, they feel like you chipping in to help fellow travelers with their backs against the wall, like taking on responsibility to help those in need (more on that in a sec), and their gradual opening up to you feels like its own reward. It’s hard to explain this, but I appreciate this subtle difference the two games bring.

But on top of that, Timespinner takes a much optimistic approach to its material. Iconoclasts still ends on a happy note, and Robin’s will wins the day against the Concern, but their world is still filled with dark forces. Chaos will rule for a bit as the shattered pieces of their world are rebuilt, and some of the oppressive forces that created the evil systems still exist.

Timespinner, for as dark as it gets, never gets that cynical. People repeatedly make bad choices that lead to bad scenarios the set up the game’s core, but often they’re just that: bad choices, made by people who mean well but are driven to desperation. Power can corrupt, and the villains of the game are certainly corrupted, but most people aren’t totally beyond redemption, and ultimately sacrifice and empathy can win the day and set things right. Societal decisions aren’t the problem until they’re done without concern for the humans involved: rebellion against tyranny is noble, but those same forces easily mutate into empire and domination left unchecked, or research and discovery is good, but the amoral experimentation done solely to secure greater power that you see later in the game is hideous and grotesque.

That, plus Lunais’s more mystical powers, remind me a lot of my other favorite fiction. “With great power comes great responsibility” feels like it could be part of the ethos of the game, and it doesn’t pull back on the cost of that duty. The Time Messengers have to sacrifice their entire future lives to another timeline when they go back with the Timespinner, and the game makes sure to point that out, and that’s only the start.

And I’ve mentioned my love of Avatar: The Last Airbender before, which also reflects on those topics. But there’s another way that Timespinner reminds me of Avatar and its sequel series, The Legend of Korra (besides Korra and Lunais feeling like they have a lot in common, which is another plus in my book). Namely, all of them have a very mature and nuanced understanding of large-scale, intergenerational conflicts. One of the refreshing about Avatar was that conflicts flowed naturally from the conflicts and decisions before them; even if a decision didn’t seem like a bad choice in its making, it still opened up new areas of conflict that had to be dealt with earlier. 

(The big, specific spoilers will follow, so this is your last jumping off point.)

Timespinner is much the same. Lachiem is an empire now, and you have a solid few hours seeing them as the indomitable force of an empire at the start. But after getting dropped back in time, you find that they started as a stranded interstellar colony of an earlier empire, Vilete, condemned to a planet that’s overwhelmingly hostile, with most colonists either serving time there as prisoners or trying to escape a homeworld full of bigotry and crushing class hierarchy.

Lachiem’s decision to turn to demonic powers to fight back is regrettable, but understandable faced with their own cruel tyrant who refused to see them with empathy and respect, and threatening to crush them militarily . Even your allies in the Viletian outpost view their homeworld fairly negatively, even if they’re supposed to be fighting for them. And the ways that Lachiem’s decisions spiraled out of control in the intervening years between the past and present are a tragedy in the classic sense.

Another concept that sets it as a counterpoint to Iconoclasts is the final bosses of each game, which really underlines their ideologies. Again, I don’t want to give away everything, but you end up fighting major deities in each games’ cosmologies (the long-forewarned Starworm in Iconoclasts, and a god of time in Timespinner), but each serves as punctuation for Timespinner’s idealism and Iconoclasts’ empowering, er, iconoclasm. 

There’s just so many big ideas and so much warm humanity in the story of Timespinner that I find it hard not to love. Wrap it in all of the solid gameplay aspects, especially the tight Metroidvania and RPG bits, and it’s easily one of my favorite games of 2019. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone remotely interested.

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