Review: TimeMelters

28 Feb 2024

Time is an amazing and mysterious thing. Since probably before recorded history, we have perceived time in different ways, and in every creative medium from dreams to books to movies and also games, we have imagined being able to manipulate it to our advantage. Today, a game developer has taken the idea of doing exactly that to quite an extreme, with what I like to call a single-player co-op game: TimeMelters, developed and published by Autoexec Games for PC via Steam, released on February 28, 2024.

This is a third-person action-adventure with puzzle elements in which you are essentially a witch who must wield magic capable of manipulating time and the elements to overcome hordes of enemies and ultimately prevent a tragedy from happening after the fact. Let’s have a look at this interesting concept, or… maybe you already did, with your time powers, ha ha ha.

Burned at the Stake

The story puts us in the role of Teagan, a young woman who is about to be burned alive for being a witch. Using a stylish mix of hand-drawn storyboards and in-game sequences, our hero is seen watching someone else be burned before her. Then suddenly monsters descend upon the village and kill everyone in attendance, with only Teagan surviving, or so she thinks. The soul (I think) of the woman burned just before Teagan joins with her body and directs her to escape, despite the death of her beloved.

With no time to grieve, she is forced to flee from returning monsters, during a lengthy sequence in which she sees some unusual things, like another person who looks just like her walking down a different path. She learns during this sequence that she posesses some unique powers, which the soul she carries along with her teaching her to how to use along the way. This makes it obvious that the person Teagan saw was her own future self helping her escape. From here she embarks on a mission to help the woman who helped her and, ultimately, find a way to save her friend despite that fact that they are already dead.

While a little bit trope-y, the storyline is detailed and compelling, even in the “streamlined” version. Yes, you’re given the option of two different versions of the story, with more or less detail. There was a pretty significant amount of text to read just in the streamlined mode, but if that’s not enough for you, the developers have you covered with all the lore and extra detail you need.

It’s a great idea that I’d like to see other story-rich games consider. While this basically means writing two versions of the story, it means people who are more into the gameplay don’t have to sit through a huge amount of dialogue before they can play, and the people who love deeper stories in games can still get that. But as I suggested, even the streamlined version has quite a lot of text and dialogue, so you can be pretty sure you’re not missing anything important if you go that route.

Alternate Timelines

TimeMelters reminds me of a somewhat-little-known series of Time based games known as Time ______ers: Time Rifters, Time Clickers, Time Warpers, and Time Wasters, by another developer Proton Studio, which I’d like to speak of briefly as it will help me explain the gameplay (note that none of these games are in any way connected to TimeMelters, despite the naming scheme). Time Rifters in particular is remarkably similar to Melters in concept, and perhaps a source of their inspiration. In Rifters, a first-person game originally made for VR, you begin each level in a room with three other inanimate bodies. You pick and upgrade a weapon, and then enter an arena where there are a large number of voxel enemies to destroy, more than you can realistically defeat within a very short time limit. Then, the game resets and you take control of one of the three other bodies, and repeat the process. Each time, you are joined by your previous lives which you must cooperate with to actually defeat all of the enemies within the time limit.

This in many ways is also the core concept of TimeMelters. Teagan has many spells at her disposal, but her defining power is just like that of Time Rifters: she can exist in multiple timelines, and thus the core game mechanic is she must work together with herself to overcome challenges that might be very difficult-to-impossible otherwise. Sometimes this means a tower defense-style stage where a large number of enemies come at you that you can’t survive on your own, and other times this might mean sacrificing yourself in one timeline to expose a weakness on a boss which you can exploit in the next timeline.

Teagan also possess various spells to control nature and the elements which definitely helps give the game a unique flavor. To power these spells you need mana, which drops from some of the enemies. So you might brute-force kill some enemies for mana then, as you are about to die, start another timeline, and then use your magic to successfully overcome the rest of the wave of enemies. There are even puzzles designed around this, where in order to progress forward, you literally need to be in two places at once.

Hitting a Wall

It makes for a truly fun and engaging experience. It’s also quite challenging and occasionally a bit frustrating. The good news is that if you’re the sort who doesn’t mind doing so, you can change the difficulty at any time with no penalties. On a personal note, even if the game encourages it, I don’t really like the idea of dropping the difficulty to get un-stuck, as it makes me feel inadequate and maybe even a bit of a cheat. But if you fail a mission a few times, the game will remind you that you have the option to change it.

The difficulty does ramp up pretty quickly and that’s because the stages can be quite abstract. This is in part due to the fact that you can die, and do so in one hit. This is a key point that created my main issue: It’s not just that you can die (and in one hit, mind you), but you can die at different times in each timeline. The enemies are aware of all versions of you in play, so if you attack an enemy on your second timeline that you didn’t in the first, that can draw aggression from all the enemies in the area. This means your past self may end up firing magic at air, or your past self may end up in the path of enemies due to your aggro and die early, and thus not executing everything they did the first time.

Now, the game does give you tools to deal with this. At any time you can press a button to pause the game and get a bird’s-eye view of the map, which will help you keep track of everything that’s going on and let you plan a strategy. The developers have the right idea here; I just think a bit more help might be in order. The game also marks with an X enemies you killed in the previous timelines, so you can try to avoid shooting the enemies you previously killed. All useful stuff.

It’s still very fun to play though, don’t get me wrong. I also think this pain point has a fairly simple solution. Instead of having to start the entire level over when you fail, if you could either rewind a timeline (it fits the theme of the game!) or at least restart from the beginning of your second or third timeline instead of starting the entire mission over, it would remove a ton of the frustration in trying to solve the puzzles. This would make a huge difference because it isn’t easy to predict when your future actions are going to sabotage your past actions.

If you have become a Time Melting master, the game offers additional modes in the form of Challenges, and an online two-player Co-op campaign featuring both Teagan and her friend Edwin. I regrettably didn’t really have anyone to test this with, but it honestly sounds pretty brain-bending in the way that Portal 2‘s co-op mode was, so I think that will be a fun experience if you gift a copy to a friend. There’s also a speedrun mode for the true masters out there. That definitely isn’t me but I really like to see games supporting the speedrunning community, so props for that.

Taking a Look Back

Though challenging, the gameplay is a lot of fun and certainly makes the game reccomendable. The audiovisual experience regrettably doesn’t do it enough favors. TimeMelters has a pretty decent, if slightly sterile, fantasy visual theme going on. The problem isn’t really the art itself, but just how basic everything is. Every level is essentially one really large terrain map with other objects dotted about it rather lightly. There isn’t enough going on, and the level design work thus gives the appearance of stuff I made in Unreal Engine 3 15+ years ago. In other words, while it looks visually decent enough, it also looks very dated.

This isn’t me saying I expect an indie game studio to use every graphical bell and whistle in existence, far from it. But the environments just end up looking kind of bland overall because there just isn’t enough stuff there populating the environment. The good news here is that I expect this game will run on a fairly low end machine, which does make it more accessible to a wide audience.

On the audio side of things, the game offers some pretty decent music tracks that fit very nicely with the overall against-the-odds fantasy vibe the game gives. Not jaw-dropping stuff, but all-around good music selections, with one minor oddity where sometimes, particularly if you go AFK for a bit, the music within a level will suddenly change to an entirely different track. It doesn’t happen after the clear end of a song, it just… happens. It would probably better if it was just one looping track in each level, unless they were to implement a dynamic music system, though that’s a bit of a stretch.

There’s also some remarkably decent voice acting present in the game, just not a huge amount of it. I’d like to see this expanded this in an update or something if possible, because it sounded good and really had me wishing all the dialogue was voiced. Very good job on what’s here, however.

Final Timeline

TimeMelters is a very intriguing game, one which takes an unusual gameplay self-cooperation mechanic (which I have actually seen before) and takes it in a totally new direction. It has been a lot of fun to play, and while there was some frustration, it was mostly the good kind that makes you determined to succeed.

There is a good amount of game here too, between the solo campaign and the extra modes available, which could keep you busy for many hours. While the visuals are somewhat lacking and a few quality-of-life improvements might be needed, overall I had a lot of fun, and I highly recommend TimeMelters to anyone who loves having their brain melted by action-oriented puzzles.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Autoexec Games for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Autoexec Games.