Developer: Climax Entertainment
Release Date: 09/30/99
Starting with the quite legendary dungeon crawler Shining in The Darkness, Japanese developer Climax Entertainment (not to be confused with American developer Climax, who makes crap) created a string of various role playing games that loosely fit together for two reasons: first, that three of the games in the fan-titled “Stalker Series”Â have the word “Stalker”Â in their title, and second, all the games feature the distinctive character designs of Japanese artist Yoshitaka Tamaki. It’s for the latter reason that sometimes the Matrix Software developed game Alundra gets thrown into the series by fans, but don’t be fooled: Alundra has nothing to do the Stalker games as they are… but only because Alundra wasn’t made by Climax. In all other respects, it’s pretty much a spiritual successor.
Time Stalkers is tentatively the last addition to the series (that isn’t really a series) that are the Stalker games. Like a good deal of the Stalker games we’ve seen stateside, Time Stalkers was published directly by Sega themselves for their very own Dreamcast console in 1999. Being a fan of the Stalker games myself, I was quite excited for the game, but I didn’t purchase it right away, as the game was released the same day as Resident Evil: Code Veronica, and… yeah. Turns out, I might have been better off not rectifying that decision.
Time Stalkers puts you in the giant shoes of the blue haired, sharp toothed (literally) character named Sword, who for some reason is dressed like a vampire pirate. At the request of a mysterious maiden, young Sword travels to an ominous clock tower, where inside he happens to open a strange book that sends him, and the clock tower, to another world. “Ring World”Â, where Sword now finds himself, happens to be made up of a collection of other worlds from various times and dimensions, and just like Sword and his clock tower, each fragment of this weird place has its own “hero”Â which serve as other playable characters later in the game.
This kooky premise is definitely interesting, and suffice it to say, it’s one of the best elements Time Stalkers has to offer as a gaming experience. Though there’s only a little more exposition in addition to what’s laid out for the player at the start of the game, the lighthearted and surreal direction the multi-world concept follows is almost a parody of traditional RPG storyline fare that is both unique and exciting.
Though not as technically proficient as certain other games on Sega’s console at the time, Time Stalkers‘ visuals did have a certain delightful look about them, which could most likely attributed to the quirky character designs and the purposefully clashing color palettes of the collected Ring World. The many dungeons in the game are, unfortunately, far to reminiscent of one another, and are mostly all comprised of the same dull and drab texture work, and many of the character and monster animations come across as stiff, which hurts the visual appeal of the game a bit. Frankly, the game is artistically interesting, but even for its time, it was technologically awkward.
The sound effects in Time Stalkers usually do their jobs as one would expect, and while there’s nothing fantastic, there’s also certainly nothing bad. The music is fitting for the most part, but unbelievably underwhelming in comparison to other Stalker games, most notably Landstalker, which is considered by a few, including yours truly, to have one of the finest MIDI soundtracks to be heard on Sega’s classic Genesis. The game does have some rather lengthy dialogue sequences at times that are not voice acted, and though it personally doesn’t bother me, perhaps voice acting of some kind would help these scenes be a bit more exciting for certain game players than they are.
At its heart, Time Stalkers essentially does its business by way of the Rogue school of RPGs. For those not instantly familiar with that concept, the game works with randomly generated dungeons, wherein the goal is the pass X amount of floors, utilizing whatever items and equipment you can find, and defeating enemy monsters as they lurk about. If you leave the dungeon by way of death or voluntary exit, any accumulated experience points gained whilst inside become forfeit, and poor Sword will enter the dungeon again as a Level 1 Vampire Pirate. This maddening formula has been around in quite a few similar games in the past, so it’s usually an element that can be worked around, depending on how other things fall in place within the corresponding product. Unfortunately, such is not the case with Time Stalkers. Besides the grueling experience reset not working with the specific design of the gameplay, there is actually very little Time Stalkers manages to get right once you enter a dungeon.
There are several pseudo Rogue-like games that Time Stalkers borrows from to create its hodgepodge of collectively flawed gameplay mechanics. The first would be the Fushigi Dungeon series that has been popular with Japanese gaming sadists for the better part of a decade prior, as many of those games would use the same experience reset mechanic Time Stalkers employs upon exiting the dungeon, as well as the general collection and utilization of items and equipment within. The second, would be the more recent (in regards to Time Stalkers‘ release), Evolution: The World of Sacred Device, which essentially went with a randomized dungeon set-up like most Rogue-like titles, but featured separately staged, turn based battles, which Time Stalkers also opts to incorporate in a sense. The third, and most noteworthy, would be Konami’s Azure Dreams, which, in addition to being heavily Rogue-like in its gameplay when compared to the previously mentioned games, also has a monster catching/raising/fighting element that can be compared to the likes of Pokemon in many senses. Time Stalkers, as well, sports the ability to capture monsters of various shapes and sizes within the dungeon and use them in combat.
I can wholeheartedly say that I have enjoyed a number of Rogue-like games that I’ve played over the years, including the above-mentioned Rogue-likes, and while the elements I’ve drawn comparisons with from other titles that make up the collective gameplay of Time Stalkers sound like fun times in theory to those who also enjoy such games, in practice, the result is a niche game buffet nightmare that seems to be at constant war with itself, and ultimately, the player.
While the turn based formula was clunky to an extent in the previously mentioned Evolution series, the clever characters and fast pace of those battles made the inclusion in such a game easier to swallow. Time Stalkers adopts a similar idea for its battles, having Sword, or whatever character you may be traversing the dungeon with, run to one end of the screen, while the agitated monster you stumble across runs to the other. The battles play out in traditional turn based fare, having you attack and use items, skills, magic and the like, and seeing the monster retort in kind. Unlike Evolution though, these battles move along at a snail’s pace, and Climax even had the audacity of including a “move”Â function within the combat, meaning turns will need to be spent just to get within attacking range of your enemy. While these sequences might not be so bad in your standard RPG, they are quite out of place in this game, considering the other Rouge-like elements Time Stalkers chooses to employ, and while these kinds of games usually work with the traditional action-for-action formula that is in place in practically every Rogue-like due to its generally more expedient pace, the combat in Time Stalkers becomes something you should hope to receive a paycheck for due to its methodical tediousness.
Dealing with these molasses battles will net you experience points and items, but as mentioned, the game will reset your experience back to level one whether you leave the dungeon via death, teleport, or by completing the floor. This is common place in many a Rogue-like, but usually, one will be able to utilize the kick ass equipment they brought out from the nether-regions of the dungeon upon reentering it at level one. You can certainly take your rewards out of the dungeon with you in Time Stalkers, but chances are that the awesome weapon or armor you’d like to equip when you journey back has an advanced level restriction on it, meaning it will just sit in your inventory until you traverse floors and re-gain enough experience to equip it once again. This makes collecting and storing valuable items next to useless in most respects, and eventually, if you choose to stick with the game long enough, you’ll just start selling practically everything you leave the dungeon with, as its usefulness is usually exhausted during the dungeon trip you acquired it in. As if this bogus system for weapons and armor wasn’t bad enough, a similar system is in place for any magic spells or skills your characters may learn, and doesn’t allow you to use them until said character’s stats are at appropriate values.
I could also go on about the broken camera that plagues the dungeon, and the utterly piss poor collision detection, but there’s really no point. The copious amount of design flaws that have already buried the game are reason enough for me to not recommend it to anyone, save the most patient and forgiving Rogue-like fans who need to play every game in the genre, no matter what.
After Sword and friends conquer all the dungeons in Ring World and save the day, there are a number of other side quests to accomplish, and a nice selection of VMU games to acquire. If you can stand the broken gameplay Time Stalkers offers up, then these additional activities could certainly serve as an added treat. However, most players won’t really care and won’t want to devote enough time to the game to unlock these.
Time Stalkers ramps up monster levels as you the player increases levels within the dungeon. Since your experience is reset upon leaving, though, the whole game winds up feeling like an exercise in futility. It never really gets any harder as you reach later dungeons, and the hopeless realization that whatever your accomplish will eventually be negated in some form or fashion is a stale, lame feeling that only those truly devoted to playing the game will be able to endure.
I’ll give credit to Time Stalkers for its interesting story and concept for sure, but that’s about the only credit I can give it in this department. As I mentioned in the graphics section, the visuals are cut and dry, and save for the randomness of the elements that make up the Ring World, the game is practically devoid of any true style or charm.
The terrible mix of niche gameplay elements is certainly a unique endeavor, but more so in an, “I can’t believe anyone would think this was a good idea”Â sort of way than in any sort of positive way.
With the all the various Rogue-like elements in Time Stalkers constantly kicking one another in the ass, the game plays like some kind of ridiculous Groundhog Day simulation. I usually find Rogue-likes very immersing, but when you’re struggling with a game that can’t even allow you to feel like you’re accomplishing anything while playing, it’s hard to want to go back.
When it was released, Time Stalkers received considerable hype as being the first truly next generation RPG game on Sega’s technologically advanced console. That, coupled with fans of other Stalker games basically jumping for joy, gave the game quite a boost in popularity. Ultimately, however, the game was poorly received for due reason, and sold terribly. Unfortunately the Stalker name was never really revisited, though some claim the recent Steal Princess on Nintendo DS is an unsung addition to the series; if so, it’s a poor one.
I obviously can’t recommend Time Stalkers to RPG fans looking for a bit of nostalgia they might have missed, as there’s nothing really worth recommending in the product. I could recommend it to those looking for an example of a screwy collection of RPG gameplay elements they could use to torment themselves with, but I don’t know if there’s that many people who would derive joy from that.
Appeal Factor: Poor
One of the available VMU games in Time Stalkers was actually pretty neat. It was a dumbed-down art program that allowed you to composed little doodles on the VMU screen and display them as pictures inside Sword’s house. It’s sad, however, that I probably had more fun goofing around with that than I did playing that actual game. Still, it was good fun for what it was, and was arguably more fun than the game itself.
FINAL SCORE: MEDIOCRE GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Conceptually Time Stalkers is interesting, and if done a little more by the books, it could have even been enjoyable. It unfortunately most likely exists in the memory of most who played it on Sega’s ill-fated console as a waste of both time and money, as the mechanics incorporated within are an almost pitch perfect example of gaming futility. Poor reception and sales doomed Time Stalkers to RPG obscurity shortly after its release, and honestly, it’s a game no one really needs to play for any reason. For true Dreamcast RPG goodness, one should definitely look towards the masterful Skies of Arcadia, or for something a little more niche, the unappreciated video game adaptation of Record of Lodoss War. Time Stalkers is pretty much a lost cause from the beginning and won’t do much more than infuriate most players.