Super Time Force is the coolest game to hit the Xbox One and Xbox 360 so far this year. From the beautiful modern-retro pixel aesthetics to the unrelenting barrage of '80s/90s action movie inspirations and references, it’s an always-flashy, funny and frantic spectacle. It’s clear that the people over at Cabybara Games had a blast not only goofing around and paying homage to the vast amount of entertainment properties from their childhoods, but also taking a simple/familiar concept and building it into something complex that feels fresh and unique. But what happens when an action game pumps the brakes about as often as it pulls the trigger?
The year is 1987; the place, Philadelphia. When Dr. Repeatski invents time travel, the whole world goes to hell. The Blounbots – an army of hostile robots – have begun their assault on the planet, and the future version of Dr. Repeatski, who is now a hardened Commander, teams up with a band of soldiers called the Super Time Force to put a stop to the invasion. At first, the team will only consist of three members – Jean Rambois, Aimy McKillin, and Shieldy Blockerson – but as you travel through time and space, many fresh faces – all with distinct weapons/attacks – will be brought to your aid. From stopping the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs to ensure a human-dino society, to retrieving an older version of Commander Repeatski’s daughter from the future so he doesn’t have to deal with a “boooooring” baby, you’ll visit many eras for ridiculous reasons, keeping things playful and entertaining.
Ever since Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Blinx: The Time Sweeper, the industry has been playing with time-altering mechanics that allow time to be rewound, giving players a second, third, or fourth (and so on) chance to avert disaster. Super Time Force takes this mechanic and does something a bit different with it. In this side-scrolling, Contra-style shooter, every time you rewind time you’ll be adding another iteration of yourself into the mix. At that point, the past instance of yourself and its previously-performed actions will remain until their demise, helping to clear away the toughest enemies with extra firepower. In what we’re assuming is a nod to the legendary Contra code, 30 lives will be available to exhaust in each stage.
This is the hook/gimmick that distinguishes Super Time Force from other flux-capacitating video games. You’re going to die, a lot, and the point is to rewind, populate an army, and try again. Where games like Super Meat Boy or the Trials series expect you to fail often, they work so well because you’re put right back to it so quickly that the failure doesn’t even have a moment to sink in. In Super Time Force the sense of momentum often associated with the shooter genre can be hampered by a lot of stop-and-go action. When it takes nothing more than a single bullet, the grazing of an enemy or the unforgiving blast radius of an explosion to kill you, deaths can often feel undeserved. With so many moving pieces clogging the works, it’s not common to lose track of the character you’re commanding and/or collide with a projectile that’s lost in the action, quickly depleting life after life.
This type of play makes Super Time Force an acquired taste, with quirks that will need to be fully grasped before getting the most out of the experience. When we first began playing, upon a death we’d rewind only moments earlier and try again – but it’s not that simple. What you really need to do is rewind much further back, looking for ways to save time – creating more “yous” to quicker defeat enemies or advance straight through an area that you may have initially wasted time in. If you don’t approach each stage in this manner, backing yourself into a corner with overwhelming odds (a depleted clock, lack of lives) will happen. Once we had a full comprehension of the order of things, that's when Super Time Force really began to shine.
For one, the entire game is expertly polished and refined, with satisfying gunplay and platforming – while we usually prefer to use the d-pad when playing side-scrollers, we found the analog stick to be more accurate when trying to shoot on an angle. We also appreciated the amount of strategy required to be successful. With a diverse cast of characters all with varying weapons and abilities, you can tackle each situation however you prefer. Additionally, rewinding and adding more "yous" into a battle feels like moving and placing pawns in a game of chess. It’s a cool feeling to have ten or so pawns moving simultaneously, all effectively firing upon different targets.
After seamlessly jumping into the game’s first stage following the opening cinematic, you’ll have the option to choose from five other stages, Mega Man style. Each of these is divided into three missions, followed by a boss battle. Once all of the available stages have been completed, a final stage opens up where you’ll go toe-to-toe with the main antagonist, Dr. Infinity. It isn’t a very long game – clocking in around 3-4 hours for a first playthrough – but leaderboards, a Super Hard Mode and collectibles should entice replays for those that dig the concept. There are also badges that will be awarded at the end of every mission depending on your performance and accomplishments.
As we briefly mentioned in the introduction, the visuals are completely beautiful, with a striking color palette coordinated to great effect. Their impact is enhanced even further by a busy soundtrack sure to delight fans of the chiptune arts. Even the opening and closing cinemas are presented stylishly, paying homage to arcades of the late '80s and early '90s. All of this results in a distinguished appearance and attitude that we feel hits almost all the right notes. From time to time the dialog can be hit-or-miss and some jokes do fall flat, but because the absurdities are consistent, funny or not, they fit into this universe with aplomb.
Whether or not Super Time Force is of high enough quality to warrant your hard-earned money isn’t the concern – the game is extremely well-made. The question is whether or not fans of the genre it pays tribute to will enjoy such a stop-and-go style of play. The first half of our review session was spent wishing the timer and time manipulation mechanic didn’t exist – allowing for more streamlined, pure shooting action – but around the halfway point everything began to "click" and we enjoyed the remainder very much. Some of the missions can be underwhelming with low difficulty and simplistic level design, but they're always offset with an interesting idea or memorable moment to follow.
Super Time Force is a mighty ambitious indie undertaking. While Capybara Games appears to have successfully accomplished what they set out to do, the question is whether or not you’ll enjoy taking part. Those that cling to the side-scrolling shooter genre for non-stop twitch-based action might be put off by the frequent halts in the gameplay. Those that can get behind the time-bending mechanic and fully comprehend its nature will find a tightly-tuned game of strategy worth their attention. We aren't sure all of the design decisions work, but if you're into the concept, Commander Repeatski and crew are still assuredly worth hanging out with for a weekend or two.