Ever since Square resurrected the RPG with Final Fantasy VII, the RPG genre has become the Holy Grail of system sellers overnight. Touted as the first "real" RPG for the Sega's powerhouse, Time Stalkers takes the random dungeon easy street but still manages to fumble things, resulting in the most grating and flawed RPG since Beyond the Beyond.
Sent by a mysterious girl to explore an old clock tower, Sword stumbles upon a mysterious book while chasing an unknown assailant. As he opens the book, the clock tower and surrounding terrain are yanked from the world and attached to a magical, floating continent inhabited by several other such outcasts. The master of this strange world immediately labels Sword a "Hero" and sends him on a quest to unite the other Heroes, defeat a great evil, and return everyone to his respective world. The story is traditional RPG fare - the kind of average stuff we've grown to accept and even like. Every other aspect of the game, however, falls far short.
Free advice - if you're ever going to make a game that has high hopes of success, please be sure you understand why people like that type of game in the first place. While Time Stalkers' story is passable enough, its contradictory dungeon, battle, and experience system undermines any hope you may have had of enjoying this game.
Time Stalkers, like UbiSoft's Evolution, takes a development shortcut and substitutes randomly generated dungeons for actual map design. As a result, all story development must take place in the town, turning the dungeons into endless battle sequences. Were Time Stalkers one of the few RPGs in which battles are actually fun, this wouldn't be a problem. Unfortunately, the battle system is as stale as humanly imaginable, and it even includes ancient interface problems that other RPGs had long ago gotten over. You can have only one of the main characters in your party at a time, which essentially translates to having only one useful character in your party. To fill the other two slots, you can catch monsters a la Pokemon. When you encounter the roaming beasties in the dungeons, the characters line up to fight. In each area there are four spots for characters to inhabit, leaving one open for movement. Each attack has a different range, meaning that one's monsters may not always be able to reach their opponents. However, not all monsters can move to another square, thereby trapping them in a position from which they cannot attack. This, in turn, traps the main character from attacking. Additionally, when you give the command to attack, you are giving the command to attack the location the monster is in, not the monster itself. Reminiscent of the original Final Fantasy, if the monster moves before your attack connects, your character will strike nothing but the space the monster once occupied. This looks particularly amusing when you are attacking a monster in the back row and it moves forward, causing the attacker to run right through the monster, swipe at nothing, and then run back through the monster for good measure. Every weapon has multiple attack techniques that it can employ, each requiring a varying number of vitality points per attack. For the most part, these attacks aren't well balanced, making an everyday weapon change potentially fatal.There is almost no point to gaining experience or developing one's character in Time Stalkers - every time you start a dungeon, your level drops to 1. When you finish the dungeon, your level also drops to 1. So the point of going into dungeons is to advance the story and get stuff. However, chances are you won't be able to use your good weapons or armor at level 1. Additionally, you are artificially limited to entering a dungeon with only four items on your person. Thus, the primary point of items is to be sold. The only permanent improvement you get from completing dungeons is that you earn spells and skills. However, many spells and skills can't be used until the characters' stats have reached a certain level. Thus, your characters essentially start from square one every time they enter a dungeon. Every battle earns experience for the characters, and levels raise the characters' stats. Additionally, upon completing a floor of the dungeon, you can allocate bonus points to characters that lack stats to let them use their spells and skills. As in Final Fantasy VIII, the difficulty of the monsters increases as the hero's level increases, ensuring the game is a constant challenge. With this system in place, however, one really must wonder why the game doesn't let you keep your experience from dungeon to dungeon. With the current experience system, you don't feel as though your characters are advancing or improving, despite the slowly growing list of skills and spells.
There are plenty of interesting little side things to do in Time Stalkers, but none of them make the game particularly worth playing. Having a lot of excess development time on its hands, Climax programmed ten VMS games that can be bought and collected. A majority of the games are pretty worthless. The most interesting game is a miniature paint program that lets you draw a picture and display it in the gallery attached to Sword's house. Sword can also upgrade his monster pen and his house, both of which cost a lot of money. You can also sign up for bounties with the leather-clad rabbit on the Wonderland-esque island in order to fund any carpentry efforts that you might desire.
So the game doesn't play well. In these days of high technology, one would at least hope that the game would be polished enough to help draw attention away from the lack of design thought. Unfortunately, Time Stalkers is anything but polished. While hardly bad looking, the game definitely isn't up to snuff for the Dreamcast. Textures are often blurry, the character models are hideously joint-heavy, and the dungeons are extremely boring and repetitive to look at. The characters animate stiffly and unrealistically, while their laughable, disjointed shadows dance on the ground under them. While the frame rate is nice and smooth at all times, the game's collision detection is a joke, and the camera is confusing. The game feels more like a high-resolution PlayStation game than a cutting-edge Dreamcast game. Time Stalkers' characters are universally ugly - the heinous character portraits will make some players wonder why Climax has used this same artist for so long. Climax has never been big in the sound department, and Stalkers is no exception. While Climax has fortunately eliminated the boopy talking noise that usually comes with the dialogue, the game's sound effects are all generic synthed swishes and clanks. Voice work would've been a plus during some of the extremely long and boring dialogue sequences; at the very least, it would have familiarized us with the characters, but Climax obviously didn't feel the same way. The game's tunes are boring, uninteresting, and very repetitive. Not that a translation can save a poor game, but in Time Stalkers it's actually pretty good and gives us hope for when Sega has something better to localize.
Because the game has so many problems, you really must wonder how it was in development for so long without someone sitting down and saying, Wow, this game isn't fun or good to look at! Sega would've been better off with no RPG at all than to come out with just Time Stalkers. Those looking for their 128-bit RPG fix would be advised to pretend Time Stalkers never existed and turn their gaze toward the vastly superior Evolution until Eternal Arcadia, Grandia II, and Phantasy Star Online are released.