There’s some stiff competition for top-down twin-stick shooters these days. With heavy hitters like Hotline Miami, Nex Machina, and Mr. Shifty, studios have to deliver a very distinct and fresh experience to stand out. The developers at 10tons Ltd, are no strangers to achieving that in this genre, with the luminous roguelite Neon Chrome seen as a highlight of 2016’s indie offerings. However, its latest title, Time Recoil, strips down a lot of the bells and whistles from its previous attempts to deliver a game that feels very focused in some respects and half-baked in others.

The plot certainly sounds promising: a mad scientist discovers the secret to time travel at some point in the mid-1970s and uses this god-like power to overtake all of Europe. Calling himself Mr. Time, he becomes a tyrannical warlord, using his power and a device called a Time Eater to devastate beloved European capitals like Paris and Berlin and ensuring his rule over the continent. In 1987, a resistance movement called the Recoilers build their own time machine and recruit Alexa, a former colleague of Mr. Time, to travel to different points in the past and stop his machinations once and for all.

Each mission across the game’s six to eight hour run time will ask you to either gather intelligence, kill critical targets, or recruit key scientists from the past – all of which is accomplished by blasting your way from one end of a level to another. And this is where Time Recoil really shines. With each enemy you kill time slows down for a brief moment, giving you the chance to dodge their fire and align your next shot. Each consecutive kill resets the delay, and chaining multiple kills in a row unlocks powerful abilities like a murderous dash or a psionic blast.

Unlike Neon Chrome, where the moment-to-moment gameplay felt frenetic and intense, Recoil’s level design and enemy positioning feels far more deliberate. The later levels add fun twists to enhance the flow, like guns that shoot through walls, or devices that can only be destroyed using time powers, requiring you to repeatedly rack up multi-kills to succeed. It’s always a good sign when a game has us itching to play “just one more level”, and Time Recoil gave us that itch constantly.

It’s a shame, then, that 10tons didn’t give the rest of the experience that kind of attention. The game’s premise sounds like the makings of a dense and fascinating sci-fi romp, but unfortunately that promise is never really fulfilled. The setting, plot, and dialogue only function as a thin narrative logic for the game’s time mechanics, and the aesthetic does nothing to indicate the time period. The levels are a series of cookie-cutter corridors with small pallet swaps to differentiate office buildings from laboratories, and characters wear one of three outfits: orange jumpsuits for the Recoilers, white lab coats for scientists, and black military garb for Mr. Time’s henchmen. The music is also hugely anachronistic, using a modern-day drum and bass soundscape that often betrays the methodical nature of the action and doesn’t evoke the soundtrack of 70s and 80s Europe in any way. Because of all this, Time Recoil would have felt far less at odds with itself if it was set far into the future.

Conclusion

Time Recoil packs a lot of fun into a relatively short experience, but the lack of effort invested into the plot, visuals, and audio holds it back from sitting at the top of the genre.