The Ambassador: Fractured Timelines is a game in which a man who looks like an archetypal Brooklynite podcaster uses Shadow the Hedgehog’s Chaos Control time powers to fight a legion of wizards, tree monsters, and axe-wielding maniacs in a wintery world loosely inspired by Norse mythology. You play as Gregor, an Ambassador of Time and member of the Eternal Fellowship. When the capital city of the Fellowship is destroyed, you must travel the realm to find those responsible and bring them to justice.
What exactly is an Ambassador of Time? What is the role of the Eternal Fellowship in the land of Tamaris? For the most part, the game is content to let you wonder. That self-assured pose is a strength not just of the game’s worldbuilding, but of The Ambassador as a whole. It’s a twin-stick shooter that isn’t a roguelike, a distinctly-crafted world that doesn’t want to beat you over the head with lore texts. Fittingly for a game about time manipulation, it feels out of a different time itself, like something you might have discovered in the back pages of a Blizzard catalog from the mid-90s.
The basic loop is simple: enter a stage, kill everything in it, and progress to the next one. You accomplish that goal using a range of martial and magical weapons, each with its own quirks. Magical weapons like homing fireballs are powerful, but drain your slowly-recharging mana. Meanwhile, martial weapons like the spear and axe are thrown then return to you after an impact or short distance. This throw-and-recall dynamic makes The Ambassador feel more methodical than a typical twin-stick shooter.
Early combat is simply about getting your enemies before they can get you, the Ambassador’s foes quickly get tougher and craftier. You might have to wait until a knight lowers his guard to swing his huge axe, or knock a piece of terrain at a golem to crack its rocky hide before you can damage it. When you’re dealing with several different kinds of opposition at once, the effect is somewhere between the chaos of a bullet hell shooter and the dodge-and-exploit combat of Dark Souls.
The time stop mechanic is simple, but effective: it only works on enemies and objects near you, meaning that there’s some spatial management involved in deploying it effectively. At first, it’s a more or less optional ability that sets off a neat color inversion effect and audio distortion which is almost certainly inspired by a similar power in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. But as the game progresses, the time stop becomes essential to staying alive.
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Despite how hectic things can get, The Ambassador is pretty approachable. Levels are bite-sized challenges that can be completed in as little as a few dozen seconds, or can be played more slowly and carefully. Death arrives frequently, but only means starting the stage over again. And there’s an “Assisted” mode, too, in which enemies stay dead when you start a stage over.
If there’s one negative thing I can say about The Ambassador, it’s that it breaks the cardinal rule of pixel art by mixing resolutions, an effect that can make the game look kind of low-rent at times. The sprite rotation effects employed to create spinning weapons (rather than redrawing them at different angles) are also a little jarring. But those are pretty minor complaints with what is a charmingly confident first release from developer tinyDino Games. Oh, and the soundtrack, which is available separately, is an ethereal collection of tracks that eschews the typical chiptune-inspired fare in favor of strings and synthesized vocals and reminds me of titles like Symphony of the Night.