The words "retro-inspired pixel-art shooter" might rightly inspire groans these days. What was once a cute nostalgic wink has turned into a slightly overused trend du jour. Super T.I.M.E. Force shakes off these concerns by using the art style as thematically appropriate set dressing for its real hook: a wildly inventive gameplay concept.
Death as an Opportunity
The Super T.I.M.E. Force is a band of time-traveling (ahem) "heroes" who have learned how to use alternate realities to their advantage. Once a member dies, they just rewind time and fight right alongside him. Functionally, this concept makes each stage something of a combat puzzle. The stage clock is set at 60 seconds, and bosses are formulated to make them too tough for a single life to beat. Stacking life on top of life is the only way to navigate the bullet-ridden stages. Beating bosses with this innovative mechanic is especially rewarding, once your multitude of lives are all working in tandem to fire off a torrent of bullets.
Lives lost by mistake are not only forgivable, but create a unique opportunity. Saving one of your former lives lets you gain their charged attack, as well as the ability to take an extra hit. Carefully planning these saves can itself be a strategic choice. Plus, rewinding time reveals previously hidden power-ups that slow time.
That idea breathes new life into what would otherwise be a standard shooter. It functions identically as you might expect from a game like Contra. For the most part it’s as smooth and responsive as the premise requires, but a few brief jetpack sections are particularly weak due to awkward handling, and I did hit an occasional freezing bug. Plus, since the stages are so littered with bullets and threats from every direction, sometimes I found myself losing so many that I had to restart the stage altogether. Like most puzzle games, it’s frustrating to find yourself paying later for mistakes made earlier.
A Team of Selfish, Irresponsible Jerks
As I alluded to earlier, the team aren’t really heroes. Led by the dubious Colonel Repeatski, they make a habit of changing time for selfish, stupid reasons. They might slaughter knights to get favorable treatment at their favorite themed restaurant, or prevent the extinction of the dinosaurs just because they think it’d be neat if dinosaurs were still alive. They’re irresponsible jerks through and through, and arguably the villains, since the main antagonist is just an alternate-universe Repeatski begging for them to stop mucking around in time.
The premise itself is hilarious, and I enjoyed the twist on the usual action game heroics, but the writing itself doesn’t do the premise justice. It’s filled with terrible puns ("fish around" in Atlantis, har har) and pop culture references (the bazooka-wielding Jef Leppard). Repeatski regularly talks in the poor English of an Internet troll, as if recognizing the reference is supposed to be a joke in and of itself. On the whole, I found the visual gag of crashing onto innocent bystanders more clever, since it played with the notion that these people aren’t really heroes at all.
I was also disappointed to find the occasional appearance of bugs on Xbox One. More than once the game froze on me entirely as I was using the rewinding mechanic, forcing me to quit out of a stage and start again. The stages are short enough that I never lost much progress, but the technical shortcomings were definitely a bother.
A wide variety of settings does afford the opportunity for several playable characters. Just like saving one of your previously downed lives, you gain new warriors to your cause by finding them in the environment and stopping their imminent deaths. These run the gamut from a skateboarding dinosaur, to a robot, to anthropomorphic poop, which gives you an idea of the humor.
Super T.I.M.E. Force’s writing can be obnoxious, but the strength of the gameplay conceit carries it through. Making death less punitive puts a unique spin on a staid genre. Using these tools to solve the combat scenarios is a blast, and worth suffering through some of the silliness and frustration.
Final Score: 7 out of 10.
This review is based on a downloadable Xbox One code provided by the publisher. Super T.I.M.E. Force is available now for $14.99 on Xbox 360 and Xbox One. The game is rated T.