In Timespinner, the player steps into the shoes of Lunais, a young woman in a nomadic society that trains talented magical youth like her as Time Messengers – people prepared to be flung back in time to warn of dangers to the clan. The spacefaring Lachiemi empire has become one such danger, and is obsessed with possessing the titular Timespinner. The game opens at Lunais’ birthday party, which is inevitably crashed by Emperor Nuvius himself – sans invite, avec death squad – and Lunais barely makes it to the Timespinner before it is destroyed, her mother killed as a parting shot.
Only, the Timespinner doesn’t send you into the past – it sends you to Lachiem itself. With Lunais vowing revenge against Nuvius and gradually learning more about Lachiem in the present and at an important moment in its ancient history, Timespinner goes in some interesting directions with how Lunais’ revenge may take form.
In Timespinner, the storytelling possibilities of the Metroidvania format are used intelligently by the small team at developer Lunar Ray Games. Time travel is, after all, the ultimate form of backtracking, and the large interconnected world map gains an extra sense of place when it can be visited at different points in history. The game’s dense and well-realised backstory is wisely mostly kept to collectable documents, downloads and memories, but completionists will enjoy tracking down, reading and immersing themselves in the materials on offer.
Optional sidequests, meanwhile, focus on the evolving relationships of a small group of soldiers you slowly assemble through exploration, putting a human face on a planet that you don’t actually visit during the course of the game, adding to a sense of a fictional creation larger than its levels.
Perhaps most commendably, you get the feeling that a lesser Metroidvania would have taken Timespinner’s ‘two time period’ gimmick and served Castlevania and Metroid settings with little to no alteration. While it’s true that Lachiem’s past has the castles and its present has labs filled with scientific abominations, the originality of the story keeps the games from veering too far down either well-trodden path. The fantastic pixel artwork seals the deal, with the cities of Lachiem’s present given a more ‘decopunk’ feel, and locations and enemies from both eras reoccurring in visually distinct but connected ways.
Given the time travel premise, there are a few different endings on offer here, but you’ll need to explore the world relatively thoroughly to go down all available paths. Meanwhile, if you’re just here for the action and platforming, the essentials of the story are unobtrusively told through short cutscenes and the world filled with enough interesting gameplay spaces and power-ups to keep you equally entertained. Players who like to explore story-driven games with a less-skilled player two in tow may also be interested to hear that a second player can help out in combat by taking control of one of Lunais’ cute familiars.
Lunais fights with a pair of levitating orbs, and there is significant interest to be found in mixing, matching, and levelling-up the different orb types you discover through your adventure. Each has a different associated magic attack tapped out with ‘Y’, but the real fun comes with the charge attacks on ‘A’ (unlocked by crafting a corresponding ring, and costing ‘aura’ to execute). Getting real use out of them all is likely to take players multiple playthroughs, but there are some real treats on offer – giant magical blades, moon shard shotguns and ‘horizontal lasers of electric destruction’, every one of them landing with a satisfying punch.
The platforming elements are perhaps where Timespinner doesn’t quite push boldly enough into new territory. Lunais has a Symphony of the Night-style back dash on ‘L’, and quickly acquires a graceful pirouetting double jump reminiscent of countless other games. Later additions allow you to frictionlessly glide across the floor to make longer jumps, or to fly skywards like a rocket – all moves that were fun in other action platformers and fun here, but potentially a limiting factor in how the game is shaped.
Most tellingly, the ability to freeze time (with ‘X’), the one thing that should surely be Timespinner’s centrepiece mechanic, feels greatly underutilised. There are a handful of areas where progress requires you to freeze time to hop on an enemy or object, and there are fewer instances where freezing time will get you past dangerous, fast-moving obstacles.
While the time-freezing mechanic also gives you some headspace in a hectic boss fight and allows you to jump over larger enemies, the promise of this feature evolving in new and interesting ways in either platforming or combat terms isn’t realised. Indeed, with the player’s power level trending a little too high by the end of the game, flailing-thumbed users of the Joy-Con’s tiny buttons may find themselves freezing time accidentally more often than intentionally.
Though a particularly thorough 100 percent run may take around 10 hours and exploring is never uninteresting, this is a take on Metroidvania that lacks any high skill-ceiling collectables (think the shinespark gauntlets of everything Super Metroid onwards). Other than some occasionally obtuse destructible wall puzzles, genre veterans are unlikely to find tracking down every last collectable particularly difficult. This said, there’s greater scope for challenge in the combat – there’s an optional challenge dungeon, and an unlockable nightmare difficulty mode that makes use of the time freeze more of a necessity for survival.
Timespinner’s only real weakness is that it’s merely great; this is a genre that is particularly well represented on Switch, after all, and there are plenty of other options that play a little stronger in certain respects, or work in different visual styles that may appeal to you more. However, Timespinner’s well-executed story, frenetic combat system and authentic-feeling early 32-bit pixel art mean that the job of those writing ‘Best Switch Metroidvania’ lists isn’t getting any easier.
Gorgeous to behold and equally delightful to play, Timespinner is yet another top-notch Metroidvania on Switch. A lack of tough exploration challenges and an under-utilised time-freeze gimmick aside, it succeeds in using the popular genre as a vehicle for a genuinely intriguing science-fantasy tale that will motivate players to explore every inch of its fantastic pixel-art world.