The term “Metroidvania” has come to mean a very specific type of game for me, and even though some games have put some interesting twists on the formula over the past several years, it still mainly comes down (in my mind anyway) to exploring a castle-like structure(s), finding blocked paths and then eventually finding a path, then an item/power/maguffin, then fighting a boss and using the new power to check what has opened up to you now. There were two games this year that I played, one trying to distinguish itself with something “new” and another sticking to the formula much closer, and honestly I was surprised at which one grabbed me and which one broke my heart.
Let’s start off with Chasm, a game I backed on Kickstarter WAY back in 2013, and one I had followed the past 5 years, usually catching up with a developer at PAX and getting to play their latest version of the game. I was generally impressed with what I played, and the sections I managed to get through seemed to be a very good “slice” of what the game was. Unfortunately, it turned out that this well crafted sequence wasn’t a good indication of what I eventually played.
When the game became available early for backers, I was giddy with excitement, but my excitement quickly turned to bewilderment as I began making my way down into the titular Chasm. It started out well enough with an actual introduction for my character and an intriguing premise of being sent to a town as a newly anointed knight to investigate the mysterious mountain town. What i quickly realized though is that the core gameplay loop was less satisfying than what I had played at multiple PAXs. I just wasn’t making progress that felt significant, and I think this mostly had to do with struggling with the controls overall.
Look, maybe I got spoiled after playing Dead Cells over the last year, but the combat and navigation suddenly felt leaden and clunky than what I remembered. Being able to dodge, cancel, and generally get out of sticky situations with some tactical movement in that game made it so trying to engage in a combat encounter in this game just felt like moving through mud. I’d find myself wanting to use the backdash the way I remember it working in Castlevania: SOTN, but in this game you can’t just tap the button repeatedly, which in almost every case resulted in my character taking damage from an an enemy. It just made combat something I didn’t want to engage with.
Also, what I initially hoped would be a game with power ups, weapons, and skills all appearing at a decent clip turned out to be also tied to random room generation and what amounted to “luck”. This meant that I was mostly stuck with the base sword for nearly my entire playtime. I had heard rumors of a whip, but at this point I felt like the game just wasn’t going to be what I had pictured while playing it for short demos. It’s really a shame too, since I spoke with the devs on many occasions and was genuinely hoping for the game to succeed, but it seems like the 5 years of development really hindered the game since the genre moved forward so much in that time. I might go back to the game at some point to see if anything has changed, but to be honest I’d much rather dip back into the game I bought based on a random article on Rock Paper Shotgun announcing a release date.
I’m talking of course about Timespinner, a game also in development since 2014 (what a difference a year makes I guess) and had much more interesting “hook” of time manipulation. This initially peaked my interest, mostly due to my fondness for the art style and the promise of “time powers” that brought images of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time back into my head. I’ve spent four times as much time on this game as opposed to the one above and didn’t regret ANY of it.
The game’s “weapons” end up being a pair of orbs, all of which contain different effects, and the game even makes a brilliant choice to allow you to equip three “sets” as quick options you can cycle through based on the combat situation. The orbs do everything from setting things on fire to shooting out lightning, but they also have a secondary function that gets used in some puzzle solving. The combat always had me switching around my orbs (you can have 2 equipped at a time) to match the type of enemy/situation that suited it best which kept the combat fresh yet also allowed me to tailor it to my playstyle.
In addition to being a great game to play, the story of the main character Lunais is simple at first, with a basic “save the world” premise that sets her on a course for revenge. As you play through the game and the narrative unfolds it quickly becomes much more complex. There are revelations about characters’ pasts (since it’s a time travel game after all) and even some VERY progressive takes on gender dynamics and relationships that really had me surprised. The more I played, the more my admiration for the game grew.
Once I reached the game’s climax, I figured there would be a final choice (there was) that I’d have to make, but what REALLY surprised me was there are at least 3 other endings I had the opportunity to pursue. I did end up looking at the 2 main ones, and both end up with a satisfying conclusion that felt true to the characters and world they had created. I then started to pursue another ending thread (the “real” ending I’ve been told) but did drop off at some point. I certainly intend to go back and finish it at some point, but I’ve been putting it off because I don’t want to actually be “finished” with the game.
Both of these games come from the same line of DNA, but it’s surprising that the one I initially “bet” on turned out to be the lesser game. Not only is Timespinner the better playing game, it’s the much more progressive and one of the most interesting narratives I encountered this year that included games like Red Dead Redemption 2, Marvel’s Spider-Man and even God of War.