It’s easy to be wary of high-concept indie titles based around some quirky concept like time travel, gravity, teleportation, guns that shoot science instead of bullets, etc. When they work, of course, they work marvelously, like Portal, Braid, Antichamber, The Swapper, Fez, or any of the best puzzle platformers. But there’s no denying that there is a glut of gimmicky imitators in the genre, and more often than not the concepts, no matter how interesting they sound on paper, are stretched thin across never-ending tutorial levels. So despite Capybara’s strong record it was with some trepidation that I embarked on Super Time Force Ultra, the updated PC version of their time-traveling run n’ gun Super Time Force (which won Microsoft’s first-ever IGF “XBLA Award” for a publishing deal on Xbox 360 and Xbox One).
Thankfully, STFU shrugs off the stereotypes quickly and easily, and while the game is certainly unique and innovative, it has the frantic pacing of a good run n’ gun that is not found in most puzzle platformers. On top of that, there is an element of light tactics that strangely enough reminds me of Sega’s 1988 cult classic arcade game Gain Ground. It’s a mad idea that I would not have been brave enough to work on, but I’m happy that Capy was.
At the start of each level, you select a character from your team to play as and begin running and gunning in typical fashion. At any point in the level, however, you can Time Out and rewind time to a previous point and select another character (including the same character, if you like). When you start up again, your previous characters will still be there as ghosts, fighting and dying alongside you.
In essence, the game allows you to play co-op with yourself, with over 30 characters playing together in each level. Your team grows slowly as you complete missions and is diverse in movement and weaponry. One of your starting members, for example, is a fast-walking sniper whose charged shot goes through walls, and another has a shield that can be used to block enemy fire and create force fields. With a single character it’s impossible to beat a level within the 60-second time limit – the bosses alone have too much health to take down in such a short amount of time. Destroying barriers, exploring side paths, collecting items, and rescuing new members also drain a lot of time, providing ample reason to rewind and bring in new teammates (or copies of the same teammate).
Time Outs are also activated automatically when you die, and it is possible to then save that dead character by killing the enemy earlier or throwing up a shield. Since there’s no input for the revived character after his or her point of death, Capy came up with another way to bring them back into the action – as collectable “power-ups” that give your current character an extra hit point and also the revived character’s abilities.
It’s certainly a strange game that defies conventional wisdom. For one thing, it’s very hard to actually lose in STFU, given the generous amounts of Time Outs per level (30), but somehow it doesn’t feel problematic. In Klei’s Mark of the Ninja I felt the liberal use of checkpoints hurt the game’s pacing and went against its ninja assassin theme, but was told that it let the player focus more on “creativity” rather than playing perfectly. The “creativity” argument makes much more sense within the context of STFU’s light-hearted time traveling story and mechanics, in my opinion. In the same way that a painting emerges out of overlapping brushstrokes, it feels like a complex group assault emerges out of your individual playthroughs, a feeling that’s highlighted at the end of each level with a looping replay that lets you see it all unfold from beginning to end (a la Super Meat Boy).
There’s still plenty of incentive to play levels more than once and the true challenge lies not in simply surviving and beating the game, but in collecting “shards” (slow-mo power-ups) and “glorbs” (extra Time Outs), and beating each level under the time limit. These tasks require serious planning and completing them will earn badges and, more importantly, unlock new teammates, which, to carry the painting analogy further, feels like getting a new color added to your palette. You’ll also unlock short levels in the “Helladeck” that are more about puzzle-solving than running n’ gunning.
Capy’s presentation has always shined in its games and Super Time Force is no exception. The art/design team of Vic and Mike Nguyen has developed a striking, boxy pixel art style that is very colorful and fun to look at. The characters, who run the gamut from wizards and robots to skateboarding dinosaurs, are well-animated and reminiscent of early LucasArts adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island. One thing that really impressed me was the amount of unique content that was created for the game – even within a single area levels are distinct and detailed, with very little reuse of setpieces.
It would have been easy to make the entire game the Helladeck levels and call it a day. That the Helladeck is merely an optional challenge attached to something so much bigger and vibrant is a testament to Capy’s dedication to taking the initial concept to its limit. There’s really not much more to say other than that it’s great – if it sounds like something you might like, you’ll probably like it.
(Note: Capybara Games has an awesome tumblr.)