The future rests in this little robot’s hands
At its core, Time Loader is a game about trying to change the past. After a childhood accident renders the main character (Adam) paralyzed and wheelchair-bound, he devotes his life to figuring out a way to prevent the accident from ever happening. His solution is a little robot that he sends back in time to 1995 via a modified microwave to clear out the obstacles that led to his accident. What follows is a series of clever physics-based, 2D-platformer puzzles as the robot traverses Adam’s childhood home to undo the tragic event that spawned the crux of the game. The thing is, anyone familiar with time travel knows that the things you change in the past often have unforeseen consequences in the future.
This issue of changing the past is the driving force behind this short, surprisingly dark story-driven game. While Adam is the main character, you play as his unnamed robot who narrates his adventure, and seemingly speaks directly to the player, often using “we” phrases, like “we have to get rid of this thing to help Adam.” It’s vague enough to where you’re not sure if the robot is talking to you, the player, or if it’s talking about itself and Adam as a collective, which I found immediately endearing. The robot will speak openly about both Adam’s life and the obstacles you are facing, adding an extra layer of depth you wouldn’t achieve had the robot been silent. I also really loved how the design of the robot looked like a Vector robot you can purchase as a desk buddy. Robot cuteness aside, the narration keeps you on your toes and makes you want to figure out the wrinkles in Adam’s story – and there’s a lot more to it than just changing the past.
Without treading into heavy spoiler territory, the story in Time Loader is broken into three acts. Act 1 is the beginning of the game, where you first travel back in time to prevent the tragic accident. The game does a great job of quickly bringing you up to speed by having Adam test the controls of the robot. When you do get sent back in time, the robot helps you along the way with constant chatter and commentary about the environment. I never felt lost or unsure of what to do, but I also didn’t feel like the game was holding my hand too much. It strikes a good balance of giving you the freedom to figure the puzzles out on your own, leading to a real sense of achievement when you solve particularly challenging scenarios.
Act 2 is the middle-point, where you realize that the changes you’ve made in the past have had a detrimental effect on the future. Things are much worse than they were before. The goal then becomes figuring out a way to get back to the past to undo the things you changed to at least normalize the future – even if it’s not any better than it was. This leads us to Act 3, where you go back to the past and attempt to fix the mistakes you made. All in all, it’s an interesting conceit that’s executed fairly well within the handful of hours it takes to complete the game. In that time, depending on how much you achieve, you can get four different endings (I finished the game with 90% completion and for the “good” ending on my first playthrough). Depending on which ending you get, this could be motivation to go back and replay the game – and the game, thankfully, gives you the option to replay individual chapters to complete things you might have missed, so you’re not forced to replay the entire game from the beginning. However, despite my less than 100% completion, I didn’t feel compelled to go back and play more of the game.
Time Loader is a fun game that can easily be played in short bursts, or all in one sitting. The physics-based puzzles are fairly well constructed, even reminding me of World of Goo at times (yes, I purchased World of Goo as my first WiiWare game, I’m old). The synth-based music is also great, adding a layer of retro ambiance to the gameplay, and there are all sorts of little touches like the autosave icon being a floppy disc or the classic toys and game consoles you come across in 1995. The elements are there for a really fun game, and it is a fun game, but there are a few things holding it back.
First, the actual gameplay is relatively slow. When you first start the game, the robot has very basic functions. You can move around, jump, and grab things, but that’s it. Throughout the course of the game you unlock a few new abilities as you would in a metroidvania, but the speed of the game is still deliberately slow. You can only move at one speed, which I believe is intentional for such a short game, as it requires you to really contemplate the story and the puzzles. Unfortunately, it can start to feel like a slog as you find yourself backtracking to find new collectibles or simply retreading the same ground to get to a new area.
The frequent loading screens are also not great on Switch. While the load times themselves are relatively quick, they happen more frequently than you would think. I often found myself having to move from one room to the next to advance the story, and each time I entered a new area I was hit with a loading screen – even if I was in the previous room for no more than 30 seconds. This feels unacceptable in 2022, when older games like Super Mario Odyssey, Breath of the Wild, and even other indie games like Hollow Knight don’t struggle with such frequent loading screens between small areas. It disrupts the flow of the game, and with Time Loader already being a short game, the amount of time spent on a loading screen is all the more disruptive.
The actual gameplay itself is where Time Loader really shines. The puzzles range from quite simple to genuinely inventive, forcing you to think outside the box when presented with an obstacle that’s not immediately clear how to pass. You will also come across hidden secrets and interactive elements that flesh out the story and Adam’s character, so the game rewards you if you don’t just immediately go to the next destination. However, it’s important to note that the interactive physics are limited. You can’t just push around and break anything. There is a limit to what you can move and do, so you are still operating under some light constraints. This is not a Breath of the Wild type situation, but those limitations do force you to really think about how you’re going to proceed.
I only really got stuck in one place in the game, where I was pushing something forward and my wheels got stuck in a pit. Try as I might, I could not move backward or jump out of the stuck position, so I had to restart from the most recent checkpoint and try again. This only happened once in my entire playthrough and it was at the start of a sequence, but it was still a frustrating experience to get soft-locked, making it something you should be mindful of when playing.
Story Spoiler Warning
As fun as Time Loader is, if I had one complaint about the story, it’s that it felt rather ableist. The entire story revolves around Adam wanting to change his past due to a childhood accident. When he was young, Adam dreamed of being a star athlete, but those dreams ended when his accident confined him to a wheelchair. As you play through the game, you learn that he wasn’t just good at sports, but was also obsessed with science. This obsession is what led him to create his time traveling robot. If you finish the game with a high enough percentage of completion, he doesn’t prevent the accident, but instead goes on to create an exoskeleton for his legs in order to walk again. If you finish the game with a low percentage of completion, then Adam is miserable and aimless for the rest of his life.
I don’t think either scenario is the right message to send to people who have actually become paralyzed in their lifetime. Rather than learning to accept what happened to him, Adam is solely focused on correcting what he perceives as a mistake or a flaw. It would have been more compassionate and empowering to players if he had learned to accept what had happened to him and went on to live a thriving life, in spite of his attempt to change the past. There was no real lesson learned by the end of the game, and it could be viewed as alienating to players who have also found themselves in Adam’s situation.
End Spoiler Warning
Aside from a few gameplay and story hiccups, Time Loader is a genuinely smart, well-crafted puzzle platformer that doesn’t outstay its welcome. You can finish the whole thing in an afternoon, and end the game with a real sense of accomplishment. If you are a fan of physics-based puzzles, platformers, and nostalgia-fueled 90’s aesthetics, then this is a game you won’t want to pass up.