Climax Entertainment is probably best known as the developer of the isometric adventure game, Landstalker for the Sega Genesis. Though the game had a cult following (and continues to have one to this day), I wasn't one of its big fans. The game was OK, but I still can't understand how people can talk about it as if it was a classic. I guess Genesis owners were so deprived of action RPGs that any solid entry into the genre was greatly appreciated. But that's neither here nor there. The fact is that regardless of Landstalker's merit, the game represents the pinnacle of Climax's development career, which hasn't produced a decent game since then (or hardly any games at all for matter). This might have something to do with the original Landstalker team leaving Climax to form Matrix Software, the developers of the acclaimed PlayStation adventure game, Alundra.
Whatever the case, it's clear Climax desperately wants to capitalize on the notoriety Landstalker brought them—with or without the guys who were responsible for it. We can assume this because their only other notable game, the Saturn release of Dark Savior, failed to make any kind of impression on the gaming world. Though their new Dreamcast RPG, Time Stalkers, is a quasi spin-off of the popular Genesis game, I don't think nearly as many people will remember it as they did Landstalker (and that's an understatement, in case you couldn't tell).
While it's an obvious marketing ploy to generate interest among gamers, it should be mentioned that the only connection between Time Stalkers and Landstalker (besides the name) is the ability to play as the character, Nigel (a treasure hunter) along with his pal, Friday (a Sprite). Otherwise, Time Stalkers is a completely different game—a more traditional RPG rather than an Adventure/RPG.
By using the word "traditional," I don't mean to imply that Time Stalkers doesn't try anything new. There are actually several interesting ideas and possibilities floating around in this game. I like the idea of not being able to accumulate gold by simply fighting monsters. Instead, you literally have to work for your money by embarking on numerous quests (assigned by a goofy-looking rabbit named Noiman no less), and you can even fall into debt (quite easily in fact). I also appreciated the many variables that affect your characters' performance in battle—like the hunger, vitality and life meters. Equally promising is the ability to capture the monsters you encounter in battle to raise and train them (via VMU) to form a custom-built fighting force! I also thought there was some potential in controlling many different individual characters, and experiencing their unique adventures and involvement in the larger scheme of things.
I liked all of these ideas, which is not to say I liked to game itself. Make no mistake about it—Time Stalkers isn't a very good game. For all of its attempts at RPG innovation, this game looks ugly, plays badly and is all over the place in its focus. It saddens me to say so, too—because I was genuinely looking forward to playing this game when I got a hold of it.
I don't think I've ever seen a Dreamcast game look so bad. Though clear and colorful, the character models and environments sport appallingly low polygon counts, and the textures are bland and repetitive. At a lower resolution, Time Stalkers probably could have been a PlayStation or Nintendo 64 release. The overall visual design is very poor. The 3-D worlds can't seem to decide between off-the-wall cartoony or full-blown realism. Worse yet, the people and creatures who inhabit these worlds don't interact with their surroundings very well. When they walk or run, it doesn't even look like their feet touch the ground. They all move like robots and their faces are always stuck in the same cross-eyed, expressionless stare. The main character, Sword (yet another insensitive RPG lead named after a common noun) looks like the offspring of Count Dracula and Princess Zelda, and he has these obscenely enormous hands and feet. He just looks silly, as does everything else in Time Stalkers. Had the game simply looked cooler, I might have enjoyed myself more.
What ultimately kills Time Stalkers is the nonsensical way in which the game is put together. The whole set-up, in which Sword finds himself stuck in a community comprised of tiny regions from different time periods, is bewildering enough, and it serves as an illustration of how the game plays. For instance, characters can only take a very limited number of items with them into a dungeon, so any items you can't take with you must be put into storage. Once you level-up in a dungeon, you can carry more things, but since you've already been forced to store most of your stuff before you entered, you're left with whatever you find in the dungeon! If you find yourself needing some heal fruit and you haven't been able to find any in the dungeon, you're just plain out-of-luck. And that's not the half of it. After completing a dungeon, characters go back to the same level at which they started. So in effect, all of the fighting and level increasing goes for nothing in this game—truly a first for RPGs! This is especially frustrating when you consider how annoying the battles are. It's nice that Time Stalkers avoids the "random attack" issue by letting you pick your own fights, but what's the point when every single battle lets the monsters have the first attack? No matter how quickly you make your decisions in battle, the enemy always gets first licks—and that's not taking into account the number of misses you're likely to come up with. It just doesn't make any sense, and it certainly isn't very fun.
The game's big gimmick—randomly-generated dungeons—isn't very special at all, much less good enough to carry the game by itself. Yes, the dungeons are all different every time to enter them, and yes, you do have to go back to the same dungeons quite a bit to complete various quests, and the dungeons change every time—but big deal! The dungeons aren't very complex; in fact, they are very easy to navigate and impossible to get lost in. There are hidden traps scattered here and there, but nothing to get excited about.
I could go on about the needlessly complicated process that goes with the VMU monster raising game. I could go into detail about the other parts of the game that aren't described either in the game or the instruction manual. In fact, I was surprised at how often the manual points you to the Time Stalkers Web site for further reference when in fact, the Web site doesn't have any more information than the manual itself. I mean, I hate games that make me depend on the manual for help. If you're going to make me read the manual, don't tell me you didn't have enough room to include everything about the game in it, and that I have to go to the damn Web site for more info—especially for a game that's really not worth my time to begin with!
I was never really sure as to what was going on while I was playing Time Stalkers, and it wasn't that far into the game before I found myself not caring. I guess there's a good game somewhere underneath this mess, but Climax didn't bother searching for it, so I won't either.