Review for Time Loader
Driven by an accident in his youth, scientist Adam Wright has devoted himself to cracking the dual chestnuts of time travel and sentient AI. Combining the two, he’s created a cute autonomous robot car to send into his own past to prevent the accident before it can happen. Players take on the role of this miniature vehicle in Flazm’s environmental platformer Time Loader in an attempt to thwart the forces of destiny – and a cat. The multiple endings may be a bit disappointing, but the journey to get there is fun and filled with nostalgic touches for kids of the eighties and nineties.
The opening area of the game serves as a tutorial, covering most of what you’ll be doing for the next three hours. In this case, it’s learning how to control the little yellow robot car, which features large gripping tires, a pincer arm, and a fold-out digital display that shows the bot’s eyes and expression when it speaks. The tires allow for rolling over stacked books or low ledges, while the pincer arm can be used to push or pull objects like drawers or to pick up small items in the environment to move or throw elsewhere. In short order the ability to perform small jumps is also unlocked, which allows the robot to reach slightly higher areas within Adam Wright’s home.
While everything is rendered in 3D, the game plays as a 2D side-scroller navigated either with a game controller or the mouse and keyboard. I found the controller worked a little better, especially when using one of the thumbsticks to aim where the robot would toss things it held in its grabber by directly adjusting the trajectory arc that appeared on-screen. When using the mouse, it’s a bit trickier. You aim with a crosshairs-shaped pointer but the little robot can’t throw very far, so depending on the height and distance to the target, instead of placing it on the exact spot you want to hit, you may need to position it elsewhere to better angle the visible throwing arc. It’s functional, but a little disorienting to be moving the cursor in one part of the screen in order to affect a user interface element in a different area. In effect, the pointer acts more like a detached magnet for the trajectory arc than an actual targeting reticle.
After you’ve played with the basic controls for a while, the robot is loaded into a microwave that has been retrofitted as a time machine, where it’s sent back from present-day 2020 to Adam’s childhood in 1995. It was during that fateful summer that Adam, playing in his treehouse, stepped on a red toy car, slipped, toppled to the ground, and lost the use of his legs. As a boy he had dreamed of being an all-star baseball player, but that opportunity was snatched away from him by the fall. Now his time travelling robot, with its cheery disposition, is there to prevent that fall from happening.
Doing so, however, does not prove as easy as it first sounds. Even after the toy car is destroyed, the robot scans the time stream and determines that nothing appreciable has changed. Indeed, as you progress, additional events keep popping up to cause Adam to tumble from the treehouse anyway. The crux of the matter then becomes, can enough changes be made to prevent Adam’s fall?
Of course, if there’s one thing that movies and TV have taught us about time travel, it’s to not mess with the past, especially your own. Apparently Adam was too busy figuring out the means to do so and wasn’t exposed to those cautionary tales. As can be expected, then, when the yellow robot finally foils what seems to be the last obstacle leading to Adam’s fall – a pet feline that represents something of an antagonist throughout – returning to the future shows that things have not turned out nearly as well as expected. The only solution is to go back in time once more and attempt further changes to history.
The action all takes place in and around Adam’s house. Being the size of a toy itself, the robot car is frequently impeded by simple household obstacles like furniture, books, and boxes. These are all rendered in a clean, colourful style that is pleasing to the eye. Given the time period in which the bulk of the game takes place, plenty of nostalgic details from the eighties and nineties are littered throughout the environments. A Super Nintendo and an old VCR are wired up to the Wright family’s CRT TV. A boom box, a model of a DeLorean, and Dungeons & Dragons pieces are just a few of the many particulars spotted in the background. It’s a lot of fun seeing all these objects-turned-obstacles from the diminutive perspective of the robot as it searches Adam’s room, the living room, the kitchen, a small greenhouse, the garage, and other household locations.
In keeping with the eighties theme, musically the game reminded me of a mellow version of Blade Runner with its near-pure tonal themes. The score fades into the background, never feels repetitive, and suitably matches the state of your journey, conveying a more ominous mood when returning to the less-than-perfectly altered present. Sound effects are well done, with the thumps and bumps of moving around the environment accompanied by the whir of the robot driving along and the hydraulic piston buzzes of its grabber arm in motion. The little bot is also quite chatty, commenting on each objective in the mission as well as bits of background scenery you come across. With its warm, calm, male-sounding voice and optimistic outlook, it makes for a fun companion throughout the adventure. I even felt a twinge of sadness for it when it returned to the present to see the results of its meddling.
Time Loader does not feature traditional adventure puzzles. There are no dialog trees, no inventory to deal with, just a few small items that can be picked up with the grabber claw. Instead, the entire focus is on navigating the environment and figuring out how to maneuver around different obstacles. During its journey, the bot gains additional abilities by finding such attachments as a screwdriver, capacitors for charging small electrical devices, and a soldering iron. These can be used on a few hotspots scattered around the environment, which are highlighted by ghostly arrows or brackets when the robot draws near. A quick tap of a button when close enough and the robot will use the appropriate tool for the job. For example, get near a screw and the robot will whip out its screwdriver to drive it in or pull it out.
Aside from these tools, the robot also gains enhanced springs for higher jumps, which allows it to access areas on its second return to the past that it couldn’t the first time. Near the very end of the game, it finally gains a harpoon capability for its grabber arm, but this proves to have been an unfortunate design choice. With the harpoon grabber, you have the ability to jump off of a surface and press a button to slow down time, which allows you to direct the harpoon’s line of fire in a similar fashion to throwing items. The harpoon can then be shot to snare things like doorknobs to swing across spaces that can’t be covered by jumping alone.
That sounds simple in theory, but in practice I found the physics simulation for performing these jump-swings to be too inconsistent to be reliable. This is no more apparent than in the game’s final sequence, where a series of jump-swings must be performed in rapid succession during one of the few timed sections. This occurs within minutes of first getting the harpoon, which means you don’t have the chance to gradually master this new mechanism. Movement through this final series of jumps, which involves avoiding the cat bent on the robot’s destruction, is so wildly inconsistent and inaccurate that I almost stepped away from the game in frustration.
Sometimes the robot would swing as it should. Sometimes the harpoon’s cable would seemingly turn into rubber, dropping the bot into the waiting paws of the kitty below. Sometimes instead of swinging, the cable on the harpoon would completely reel in, pulling the robot right up against the snared object so that swinging is no longer an option. Left dangling in this way, there’s no recourse but to let go and fall. Failing this rather lengthy series of jumps results in the sequence restarting from the beginning, and the payoff for all the effort is one final kicker that I won’t reveal for fear of spoiling, but it left me wondering what the point of it all was.
Following the climactic showdown with the furry menace, Time Loader launches into one of its four different endings. Throughout the robot’s explorations, there are various optional things that can be done, such as preventing the accidental crushing of a wind-up toy or removing the tab on a VCR tape to write-protect it, which have different effects on Adam and his future. Do enough of these and you’ll get the “happy” ending, though even this still felt like somewhat of a downer to me. The other outcomes get progressively worse and more depressing for Adam. While they make sense for Adam’s story, they’re at odds with how cheerful and eternally optimistic the small robot is until that point. I found that abrupt tonal juxtaposition to be more than a little jarring.
Fortunately, prior to the last twenty or so minutes of gameplay, I very much enjoyed the game. The obstacles are just challenging enough to require some thought and planning to get past, without becoming frustrating or leaving you wondering what to do at all. Most of the game you can take at your own pace with no time pressure. There are a few spots where you have to hustle a bit, such as when you need to tip a plank down one way, then quickly drive up and jump off of its new high end before it can tilt the other way again. Even these are pretty straightforward, though, and shouldn’t pose too much difficulty for most people. None of the individual environmental challenges stand out in particular, but it’s continually entertaining to move around the house and overcome whatever gets in the way.
Time Loader uses a progressive autosave system, but at the end of the game all scenes within each of its three chapters are unlocked in the main game menu. This allows you to revisit any given scene to do things differently, which is useful when trying to find more optional tasks to get a better – or worse –ending. I’d have preferred if there was an indicator in the selection list for which ones contained these opportunities, but given the game’s relative shortness, it’s not a huge burden to revisit any of the scenes a second time to be sure.
Overall, Time Loader is a charming little side-scrolling environmental platformer that generally doesn’t require fast reactions or an excessive amount of hand-eye coordination, at least until its dreadful end-game sequence. Until that point, getting where you’re going offers just the right amount of strategic planning, the challenges never too easy or too difficult. Navigating through a typical household from the viewpoint of a tiny robot is especially enjoyable, as ordinary items become tricky obstacles to be surmounted, and the period flavour is an extra bonus for those who grew up with Adam in the eighties and nineties. If playing with remote-controlled cars, whimsical robots, and tampering with the timeline strike your fancy, then this is the game for you.