The Ambassador: Fractured Timelines is fit to bursting with promise. The first game from tinyDino Games, it takes the strong (if slightly over-used) foundations of a twin-stick shooter to layer on interesting ideas. There’s a fantasy backdrop, which is unusual for this kind of game. You have access to time-manipulation powers. There are lots of weapons, and being more medieval in theme, many are ‘throw-and-pick-up’, which is a bold take.
As bullet points for a back-of-box, these line up to make The Ambassador at least intriguing. But, having played it, I can’t help wishing that tinyDino had courage enough to take their ideas two steps further.
The fantasy theme’s a good place to start, and an example of the problems that pervade the game. You are an Ambassador of Time, newly accepted to The Eternal Fellowship. Just as you are given your powers, the Fellowship is attacked (no!) and their city destroyed (good lord!). As one of the few capable of mounting a counterattack, you’re putting your new powers to use against the enemy. Behold, The Ambassador!
It’s not exactly new, as fantasy tales go, but there’s hints of world-building here, and something to progress as the game goes on. It’s a waste then that it doesn’t progress it, as The Ambassador treats it as a setting rather than a story. How your objective starts is largely how it ends.
The time manipulation, too, stops short of what it could have been. It is good in principle: when the bullet-hell becomes particularly bullet-hellish, being able to slow time can be a life-saver. It allows you to see the path of projectiles (a neat feature), and manoeuvre yourself to somewhere safe, as well as ambush certain enemies. From the start, there are environmental uses for it, like slowing down descending gates and pausing arrow traps.
But, like the storytelling, it doesn’t really develop. Your ability to shift time doesn’t really grow or adapt; the environmental puzzles are all riffs on the same theme. Some enemies make you use your time powers in different ways, but it never quite feels enough.
Story and time travel do not maketh a twin-stick shooter, however. The backbone is how it plays, and The Ambassador feels… okay. A large portion of the “meh” is what I listed at the start: your primary weapon is melee, which is a throw-and-pick-up weapon. That means to maintain the illusion that your weapon is a sword, spear, maul etc. you can only throw one at a time. If you fail to hit an enemy, that often means the weapon thuds into the ground, and you need to pick it up again to use it.
This might have seemed sensible on paper, but the combined effect of these two mechanics is to slow you down and stop you from ever feeling like you are a killing machine. If you’ve ever ‘grokked’ a shooter, you will know that this is where the euphoria happens – when you’re felling an entire horde with your shooting hotness. Having that taken away is unsatisfying and slows the game down considerably. The heavy punishment for missing an enemy (since the weapon often bounces back if you make contact, but doesn’t if you fail) also compounds the frustration of missing. It can mean a cycle of shoot-evade-pick up which isn’t particularly empowering or fun.
That’s not to say that The Ambassador is overwhelmingly difficult over its six hours or so, at least not on its standard setting (a horde mode and hardcore setting is available on completion). The time-slowing will be your friend throughout the game, and the secondary magic weapons are so much better than the primary weapons that you’ll be exhausting them whenever you can. There’s also a fantastic level structure, which sets you up in a hub area where you can make progress on your choice of ‘worlds’ before ducking out and making progress in another. Since the weapon and armour unlocks are on a linear progression path, you can overcome difficulty spikes by switching worlds and progressing your gear to overcome it later. It’s a structure that you can see benefiting other games, so fair play for coming up with it here.
There are positives too in the weapon/armour unlocks and enemy mechanics, which have enough thought and variety in them to make optimisation of them a pocket joy. Each foe is like a little puzzle and they show the game at its best.
Unfortunately, these moments aren’t enough. The levels are too similar, mostly islands linked with bridges or blocked with gates, to make the 55 levels anything other than a slog. They are also overpopulated with trees, logs and other obstacles, some of which will block a sword when you thought the arc was clear. Enemies will use this to their advantage and get a step up on you when you thought you were safe. Ending a level also felt more frustrating than it should, as the exit and last enemies aren’t highlighted.
While this review may seem downbeat, I’m sure there’s a healthy future for tinyDino. The Ambassador is dense with ideas, but they either stop short of their potential or are not really executed as well as they could be. It’s a game that would work well as a testbed for a sequel, then, or a sharpening of the studio’s skills for a game in another genre. And extra credit is always given for ambitiously failing rather than playing it safe.
With a time-bending approach to the twin-stick shooter, it looked like The Ambassador: Fractured Timelines on Xbox One would be really spoiling us. Instead, we get a slow-paced example of the genre, whose best ideas never quite develop beyond its first hour.