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Super Time Force review: Chronological disorder

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"I don't want to talk about time travel," says Joe, a 60-year-old, time-traveling assassin speaking to his younger self in the movie Looper. Young Joe is trying to suss out how the hell the conversation is even taking place. "If we start talking about it, then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws." He's right. Sussing out time travel stories can make your brain feel like it's sprung a catastrophic leak.

Super Time Force exploits time travel's paradoxical nature to spice up what would otherwise be a mighty fetching 2D shooter. In the process, though, it's also bottled the mind-melting confusion that comes from constantly jumping between past and future. Genius in design, easy to pick up and play, and a feast for the eyes, Super Time Force is built for a very specific player, namely one who wants to mix twitchy shooting and dodging with advanced mental gymnastics.

Gallery: Super Time Force | 14 Photos

Back in the good old days of 198X, Dr. Repeatski has himself a Doc Emmett Brown-level epiphany and cracks the secret of time travel. Seconds later, his lab and hometown transform into a bombed out hellscape and his future self, Colonel Repeatski, double eye patch-wearing leader of the Super Time Force, berates him for mucking up the cosmos. Blounbots, squirrelly gun-toting robots, are invading the time stream and messing things up, so the Colonel and his crew set out to not just fix things but make time in general more awesome. How? By travelling millions of years into the past and blowing up the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, or heading way into the future and breaking into Google's headquarters so everyone's phones in the present can have all software updates forever.

The Super Time Force lives in a complicated universe, but its methods at least appear to be simple. It achieves its goals by shooting things. Going back to medieval Britain to steal the Holy Grail so you can sell it on eBay? Land your sweet time ship on King Arthur and shoot many knights. Trying to keep Atlantis from sinking? Go back and shoot all the mer-dudes working for the god that will bring it down. Super Time Force never lacks variety in its stages, turning its time period cliches into unexpected challenges like trying to protect a battering ram from getting destroyed, or piloting a jetpack through heaven while fighting angels. (And that's just two sections of one level!)

The crew is also nicely varied. Aimy McKillin's sniper gun fires through walls, Jean Rambois rocks the spread gun, while unlockable heroes like Merlin – yes, the Merlin – can fire magic balls of energy that can also block bullets. Unfortunately not all of the force's members are equally effective. Lightsaber-wielding Lou Don Jon and Merlin don't feel as useful as similar characters like Zackasaurus and Jef Leppard. From another point of view, using those characters just makes for a different challenge, another way to approach different levels. Super Time Force provides you with nearly infinite options for completing challenges, but therein lies the game's genius and its downfall for anyone but seriously committed players.

Every level must be completed in a painfully short amount of time, typically 60 seconds or less. Finding little clocks will extend the timer 10 seconds, and finding pink Shards will slow time down, but even then you don't have enough time to just run and shoot your way through. In order to make it through, you have to rewind time. Say you march forward shooting a row of robots directly ahead of you using Aimy's sniper rifle, but then she dies. Tap the B button, and suddenly you can rewind time going back to any prior point, where you can spawn a new character. So you pick Shieldy Blockerson and then he's there alongside Aimy. She repeats the actions you made before, only now you can have Shieldy place a shield around her so she doesn't die. But now there's not enough time to finish off the giant T-Rex boss, so you rewind ten more times until 10 different Jean Rambois are firing their spread guns at the same time, killing the T-Rex instantaneously. And there it is on screen, every single one of your past selves working simultaneously in concert, each one repeating your previous actions, flooding the screen with hundreds of bullets and jumping pixel people and chaos. Diagrams with straws, indeed.

If that sounds insanely confusing, it's even more so when you're playing. Even when you're familiar with Super Time Force's levels and you go in with a plan – use this person for ten seconds, then rewind, use these three characters for thirty seconds, rewind, etc. – the game moves so quickly that keeping it all straight can be maddening. As in Super Time Force's inspirations – Contra, Metal Slug – just shooting and dodging enemies by itself requires exacting precision. Now imagine doing that while juggling scores of alternate versions of characters to maximize firepower before time runs out.

The time travel works best in smaller moments. Unlocking extra characters requires you to save them before they're killed within a level. Lou Don, for example, is watching TV behind a heavy door, and he gets Ring-ed when a ghost girl crawls out of the screen. Rewinding so that enough characters can shoot down the door and get to him in time is delightful, even more so when you watch the auto-replay at the end of each stage. The same goes for collecting Glorbs, the little golden items hiding in each stage that burst out of key enemies and objects but disintegrate when they touch the ground. It's immensely rewarding setting up a ballet of characters to shoot one robot then send out two more characters to catch Glorbs like gun-wielding outfielders.

But when you're fighting a giant brain for the seventh time in a row, either running out of time or exhausting your limited rewinds because you can't keep up with memorizing both the boss' patterns and your massive number of on-screen duplicates, Super Time Force becomes overwhelmingly frustrating. This doesn't make it broken by any means. Everything that's happening in Super Time Force works and makes sense, unlike most time travel stories, but that doesn't make the requisite mental and physical acrobatics any less exhausting. There's often just too much happening too quickly, and it can feel impossible to keep up.

It's hard not to feel that the game would have been better served by slightly slowing down the pace of its basic shooting elements. At times, it feels as much like a spatial puzzle as it does a test of your reflexes. The best spatial puzzles, though, allow for a measure of patience and consideration. As a twitchy shooter, Super Time Force never lets you catch your breath and stand firm in time, leaving you under ceaseless pressure. For some players, erecting a perfect assault on Super Time Force's stages will be an ecstatic pastime. For the many others with a penchant for cerebral, time-bending puzzles, or those with an unquenchable thirst for twitchy shooting, it may be difficult to separate signal from noise. Time travel is inherently confusing, and Super Time Force could have benefitted from just a touch more clarity.

This review is based on a pre-release Xbox Live download of the Xbox 360 version of Super Time Force, provided by Capybara Games. Super Time Force is also available on Xbox One. Images: Capybara Games.

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