The Bottom Line: Though it lacks qualities that could truly set it apart, this twin-sticker shooter still manages to be an enjoyable fantasy romp with well-designed levels and a fun time-manipulation mechanic.
The Ambassador: Fractured Timelines is a tough nut to crack. Though it does many things right and few wrong, when I try to pinpoint a feature or characteristic that can really sell the experience I find myself at a loss. But here’s a good old college try: It’s a twin-stick shooter! With a story! And magic! It’s not a roguelite! It doesn’t overstay its welcome! Not sold? Wait, here’s a good one. You can stop time!
Indeed, time is a central mechanic, both in terms of gameplay and plot. You play as Gregor, a neophyte member of the Eternal Fellowship. Like all the fellowship’s inductees, he has relinquished his natural sense of sight and now relies on a force known as the Weave to act as his eyes. He can also stop time around himself, creating a bubble that freezes all enemies and projectiles within. As you can imagine, this ability is great for help Gregor get out of a pickle (although it’s the silver bullet you might expect).
Time Enough at Last
Starting out in the swamps of Sluagh, you’ll learn the tricks of the Time Ambassador trade. In addition to commanding time-manipulation abilities, which are regulated by a power meter, you are also trained to fight with both martial weapons and magic. Martial weapons function as projectiles – bows are fired, as you would expect, but even handheld arms like swords and axes are tossed like boomerangs rather than swung. Most (but not all) martial weapons will magically return to your hand, at which point you can strike with them again. This delay means every attack carries weight – you can’t just spam the attack button and hope to survive.
Magic, meanwhile, comes in a variety of flavors, from your basic magic missile to frightful fireballs. Unlike martial weapons, magic attacks can be chained in quick succession. However, casting spells consumes charges that slowly replenish over time, which means you’ll usually want to save them for taking down tougher enemies or blasting through large hordes.
While it may seem like another type of magic, time manipulation is handled separately and given its own power meter. Stopping time can often help you make a quick escape but is also liable to fan the flames of danger. Because time only stops within small area, projectiles and enemies still can accumulate around the bubble’s edge. Sure, you can stop a volley magic missiles cold, but only so long as you maintain the bubble. Once you turn it off or run out of energy, that flurry of missiles will instantly accelerate to its original speed. There are also times when you’ll avoid one projectile only to accidentally put yourself in the path of another. In fact, in some cases I found I had more luck if I avoided freezing time and simply dodged the old-fashioned way.
As you play, you’ll also encounter many Temporal Stasis Objects – objects that can only be manipulated while your time bubble is active. If you hit these objects while they’re frozen, they’ll accumulate energy and produce an effect when time resumes its normal flow. Some explode and leave behind healing items; others launch in the direction you hit them and inflict massive damage on any poor baddies that happen to be in the way.
Brought the Lore but Lost the Plot
Although the game technically has five areas, you’ll spend most of your time in just three: Everwood Forest, Mount Arawn, and the fallen city of Tamaris. Each area has its own set of enemies, with patterns to learn and weaknesses to exploit. The game introduces new adversaries gradually, but before long you’ll be juggling half a dozen different types of enemies at once.
Why are you doing all of this fighting? At the outset of the game the city of Tamaris is ravaged by a mysterious force, and it’s your responsibility to investigate and, if called for, seek retribution. It’s a very simple plot, bolstered by juicy bits of worldbuilding that are shared via books scattered across the land. Each tome conveys a small piece of history; one describes the bad blood between different races, for instance, while another sheds light on the practice of slavery in the mountains. Reading these little snippets makes it clear that the developers spent a significant amount of time imagining this realm and its backstory.
It’s a shame, then, that the actual plot is a bog-standard MacGuffin chase and that character development is practically nonexistent. Gregor scours the world for clues, finds none, and then the ultimate villain suddenly appears. (Whoops, I spoiled the whole story. Sorry!) Sure, you can find diary entries that provide more context for the villain’s actions, but they read more like an outline than an actual story. By the time I reached the story’s conclusion, my brain understood but my heart was unmoved.
Visually, The Ambassdor is something of an acquired taste. The chunky pixel art serves the environments and larger monsters well, portraying them in rich and occasionally gruesome detail, but leaves humans and smaller creatures looking somewhat rough. Case in point, I didn’t even notice Gregor’s lack of eyes until late in the game, when a passage of text explicitly pointed it out to me. In fact, the only human element that truly caught my attention was Ambassador Cait’s vibrant orange hair. Function over form is fine, but I do wish the visuals were more captivating. Finally, for reasons unknown to me, the game seems to be locked at 30 frames per second. If you’re a member of the 120hz-or-bust club consider yourself warned.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give The Ambassador is that, while none of its individual elements are particularly novel, they congeal into a whole that has a distinctive flavor. And more importantly, they’ve melded into a game that’s simply fun to play. In a market that’s flooded with Metroidvanias and roguelites, The Ambassador stands out as straightforward arcade-style game that’s engaging from beginning to end. While I felt fulfilled after a single trip through the campaign, those who really want to get the most out of the game can take a stab at the time trial challenges or throw themselves against endless waves of enemies in Horde Mode. If only I had the power to stop the clock, I might spend more time with these modes, but the towering stack of games on my desktop refuses to be kept waiting.