You might already know the saying “shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” The phrase is usually attributed to American author Norman Vincent Peale, although there are other versions dating back to the 1600s. To be fair, his version is a little catchier than “who aimeth at the sky, shoots higher much, than he that means a tree.”
Broadly, the saying means you might as well aim big because even if you fail, the end product should still be half decent. Making it 75% of the way to something incredible should still be an achievement worth recognizing. I’m sure it applies to some situations; I certainly wouldn’t mind being 75% of the footballer that Messi is, although I’d be really small come to think of it. I don’t think it’s a good saying to live by when developing a video game. I prefer the slightly altered phrase “if you shoot for the moon, you better make damn sure you at least get the bullet into orbit or it will fall back down and piss off a bunch of angry nerds.”
Unfortunately, with Timespinner, Lunar Ray Games took aim at Symphony of the Night, a small target in challenging wind conditions. The bullet veered off course and shattered a neighbor’s window. No real harm was done—it wasn’t an expensive window and the neighbors weren’t home—but the mission was hardly a resounding success.
The Castlevania: Symphony of the Night influences are unavoidable and go well beyond the basics of any normal metroidvania. Both the visual style and environmental design are instantly recognizable, your character levels up and can equip new gear via similar looking menus, and there’s even a back dash move with the same graphical effect.
The problem with imitating other games is that it’s easy to see when the end product falls short. Timespinner’s combat is decent and the time travel mechanic sets up some interesting puzzles, however it’s far too short and easy, and is too stingy when it comes to giving you abilities.
While I wasn’t overly enamored with Timespinner, it did make a great first impression with gorgeous pixel art from the early 32-bit era that I didn’t properly appreciate back in the day because I was all about the 3D dimension. I was a fool. Protagonist Lunais is particularly eye-catching with flowing blue hair and two orbs circling her at all times. The soundtrack is beautiful, managing to invoke feelings of wonder and fear of the unknown at the same time. The sound effects of the orbs rapidly hitting enemies as damage numbers fly off is addictive in and of itself. I rarely skipped potential encounters and I credit that to the satisfying mix of visual and audible feedback accompanying each fight.
The melancholy soundtrack is a perfect fit for the early game when Lunais is preparing for a celebration where she will be crowned a Time Messenger. Time Messengers are individuals chosen to use the timespinner which has the power to send you back in time at great cost. Using the timespinner removes all traces of your past self from existence and is therefore only used in emergencies, namely when the Lachiem Empire attacks the village. If that happens, the Time Messenger is supposed to use the timespinner to go back in time and warn the village of the coming attack to let them escape.
Before Lunais officially becomes a time messenger, the Empire attacks and in the process kills Lunais’ mother. Lunais manages to escape through the timespinner but something goes wrong and she is sent to the home of the Empire instead. Lunais sets out to take revenge on the Empire for killing her mother.
For such a relatively short game, Timespinner has a lot of story, although that includes optional documents that you pick up which are mainly for worldbuilding. I could have done with a little more of the story being included via conversations and cutscenes instead. As it stands, the story is a touch front-loaded, with a bunch of exposition at the start and then not much more as you progress unless you read everything you pick up. You meet a few other characters along the way and learn more about them by completing side quests. Unfortunately, these side quests are the typical “find five herbs” kind of nonsense.
The lack of time spent on the story was probably why a major twist fell completely flat for me although, to be fair, Lunais reacted in much the same way, with just a shrug of the shoulders. The delivery of the twist was so underwhelming I suspect it was deliberate instead of bad writing. Perhaps it was an attempt to go against convention and make Lunais appear a more rational character. I appreciate the attempt to do something different, but it doesn’t work because we’re never given any reason to care.
Timespinner’s greatest strength is its combat. Lunais fights with two orbs that circle her body until she lashes them out in front of her to damage enemies. There are a lot of different types of orb and you’ll regularly switch them up depending on the circumstances and enemy type. Most orbs fly straight forward, however, one transforms into a sword that can deal damage over an arc instead. The sword was an early favorite however it can be blocked by shields whereas weapons like the shattered orbs go around shields to deal damage.
You can mix and match orbs if you like, although I abandoned this approach early on. You don’t directly choose which orb you attack with; Lunais simply alternates when doing rapid attacks and for the first attack it’s based on where the orbs are when you press the attack button. Having two completely different orbs makes it tough to judge your attack range. You might be in range to hit with the sword, but not the blue orb and end up taking a hit instead. It’s great that the option is there for those who want it, though.
Lunais also has special moves that are based on types of orbs, however they don’t have to be equipped alongside that orb type. So you can slam down a massive sword even if you aren’t using the green sword orbs. These special attacks are limited by a stamina bar however it recovers quickly over time. You can’t quite spam these attacks, but there’s no need to save them for special occasions either.
All the orbs and special attacks have XP levels attached to them, so the more you use an orb type or special attack the more powerful it becomes. Lunais also levels up frequently although there’s no way to personalize her attributes. It feels a little pointless to be honest. You level up so often that you just start ignoring it and it loses all meaning. Conversely, equipment is so rare that you might well forget it’s a thing. I bought a couple of pieces early on and then ignored it for the rest of the game.
Timespinner’s gimmick is, unsurprisingly, the ability to freeze time with the tap of a button. You can’t damage enemies while they’re frozen in time, however you can get some breathing space, run away, or set yourself up for an attack. Very rarely you use this ability in puzzles, which usually comes down to freezing an enemy in place to use them for a boost to a high ledge.
The ability to freeze time sounds overpowered, and yet I hardly used it. It’s borderline necessary in a couple of the boss fights, but there isn’t much need for it against regular enemies. There’s a strict limit on how long you can use the freeze time ability as indicated by sand in the timer at the top. You can regain sand by defeating enemies and you can permanently expand the timer by collecting upgrades. Even so, it’s still a little disappointing how stingy Timespinner is with its most interesting mechanic.
Time also plays a role in the map design but once again it feels underutilized. Early on, you’re transported 1,000 years into the past to play on the same map in a different timezone. This has the potential to be interesting, but too much of the map is identical or only has minor visual differences. Most of the map isn’t all that interesting anyway, so seeing a slightly different color palette on an already boring background didn’t do a lot for me.
The best puzzles have Lunais interacting with items in the past to change the future, such as burning weeds before they have the chance to grow large enough to block hidden areas. Ever since Day of the Tentacle, I’ve enjoyed a good time travel related puzzle and I was eager to see how else the time travel mechanic would be used. The answer was “not a lot” and one of those times was burning the weeds again.
Waiting for more exciting stuff to happen was a common feeling and lasted until I’d completed the story after around five hours and 80% map completion. You gain new abilities at an infuriatingly slow rate and the last one is given out so close to the end that I barely used it. For those keeping count at home, that means I barely used equipment, the time freeze ability, or the final power, which speaks to a bigger problem with Timespinner’s design.
It’s simply not challenging enough and doesn’t require mastery of any skills. I might have been overleveled but it wasn’t down to any conscious decision on my part. This was a particular disappointment on the boss fights because they look great and most require a fair amount of skill to avoid all their attacks together with judicious use of the time freeze ability. Or at least they should. The problem is you can just tank damage and get through the fights anyway.
The best example of this is the final boss. I’ll keep it vague so as not to spoil it. The final boss has a lot of different attacks. The attacks are well sign-posted so I knew the fight was perfectly winnable and didn’t panic even when I got hit a lot early on. This is normal when you’re up against a new boss, or at least, it is for me. I figured if I could survive long enough to learn his attacks I’d beat him the next time and that would be fine.
I took a beating and used a couple of potions to prolong the fight. The time freeze ability was really useful here because a lot of his attacks are difficult to avoid without it. I got into a bit of a rhythm and was looking forward to the rematch after my inevitable death. Except, after two and a half tame minutes, he was dead and I’d completed the game. I was a little stunned. I’d been waiting for a phase two that never came. This should have been a challenging and satisfying fight, but as my wife can attest, it’s hard to feel satisfied after two and a half minutes of me fumbling around not knowing what I’m doing.
On completing the game you unlock a hardcore mode and a hardcore plus mode where Lunais can’t level up. Both of these options should have been available from the start, although I think some adjustments to the leveling system could have been equally effective and made for a more satisfying experience overall. At the start, Timespinner didn’t feel especially easy and I had to take more care over combat than I usually would. But then, slowly, it got easier, until I didn’t really need to try. That has to be a leveling issue.
There’s some value to replaying the game with different endings available based on a final decision you make after completing the story and a special ending if you 100% the map. I didn’t find Timespinner anywhere near interesting enough to warrant a second playthrough. The combat was decent but there were too few abilities and the map was a touch dull. The best metroidvanias make you feel like you’re becoming powerful through character abilities and your own personal skill. Lunais certainly becomes more powerful, but that was through her numbers going up, not cool new abilities or my own skill. Lunais has such limited move set that I felt like I was playing an extended tutorial at times.
Timespinner has a great art style and the music is excellent, but a five-hour crawl through relatively bland maps isn’t enough in a year with incredible games such as Guacamelee 2, Dead Cells, and Celeste. I spent another hour with Timespinner after finishing the story but didn’t quite get 100% and felt no desire to finish it off. Timespinner is decent, but when compared to other titles that came out this year it comes up lacking. It needed more abilities and more interesting ways to use them in puzzles. Doubling the length would have also helped because it felt over way too soon.