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Review: Zeit²

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Have you ever played a shmup and wished you could be in two places at once? That's where Zeit² comes in. What once began as a student project, and has since placed as a finalist in IGF and Dream Build Play, has arrived as a fully featured game on XBLA and PC. And when I say "fully featured," I mean sweet Tim Gunn on a bun this game is packed with modes and features. Key among those features is the ability to manipulate time, allowing players to fast forward or rewind time to play Zeit² like no other shmup out there. Imagine if someone mashed Braid into a shmup. The only question is, is this a mad stroke of genius, or just plain maddening.

Zeit² truly plays like no other shooter out there. In large part this is because of the time traveling mechanic, allowing you to fast forward and rewind time at the press of a button. Rewinding is absolutely critical, because once time resumes a shadow of your former movements and actions plays along side you. This allows you to effectively be in two places at once, or even perform powerful screen-clearing attacks by shooting your shadow for a shockwave. This ability to essentially play co-op with yourself completely changes how you approach swarms of enemies compared to other shmups. Of course, you won't be able to use your time traveling powers the time, and they are limited by a slowly refilling timer on the bottom left of the screen.

But as much as time travel impacts your play style in Zeit², there are more subtle tweaks that have a far greater impact. For example, most enemies have a glowing blue aura around them, and each of these glowing enemies that makes it to the left side of the screen drains from your health. So your first instinct will likely be to blast every enemy in sight. But that's where the second gameplay wrinkle comes in, because each bullet you fire also drains from your health. So not only do you need to kill almost every enemy on the screen, but you need to do so with as few shots as possible in order to survive. And that is why it is so important to make use of time travel in Zeit².

If it sounds like a lot to keep track of, that's because it is. Between managing your health, which is also your ammo, as well as the time traveling ability, Zeit² isn't exactly a game that fits in the "easy to learn, difficult to master" category. It's just as difficult to learn as it is to master. This somewhat limits Zeit²'s appeal to only the most hardcore shmup fans or those with a great capacity for patience. But those who persevere through to learn all of Zeit²'s nuances will find a lot waiting for them.

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There are seven modes of play in Zeit², including the standard arcade mode. Arcade mode is the core of Zeit², which will have players going through 16 levels punctuated by boss battles and new abilities every two levels. Then the rest of the modes each have their own unique rules to make them feel almost like completely different games. Wave mode has its own unique set of 12 levels pitting the player against waves of enemies. The difference here is that if even one enemy makes it to the left side of the screen the game is over, and scoring system is now based on how far from the left an enemy is when you kill them. Time Limit mode gives you a set amount of time to play for a high score, though the timer doesn't count down when rewinding time and every enemy drops a score multiplier instead of any other power-ups. Survival mode pits you against an endless, randomly generated swarm of enemies. Score Attack lets you play any of the single player levels for a high score. Tactics mode is more like a puzzle game, giving you one group of enemies that morph each time they pass across the screen, and it's your job to shoot them down when they're in their highest scoring forms. And then finally there is Challenge mode, which gives you a specific goal to accomplish in any of the other game modes. Never let it be said that Zeit² is lacking in content.

The problem is, with so many modes that all play so differently, playing Zeit² can be rather overwhelming. As I mentioned, the game already takes significant practice to master, but skills learned in one game mode don't always translate to the others. For example, I became quite good at Survival mode which taught me how to pick out which enemies to shoot and which to avoid, but then utterly failed going into Wave mode where every single enemy needs to be destroyed. I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, in fact, I'm certain lots of shmup fans with relish the challenge of it. Playing Zeit² well requires a significant time investment, but the payoff is huge for fans of the genre. Think of it like a fighting game with each mode analogous to a different character. They all use the same core controls, but the actual experience of playing them can be vastly different.

Zeit² is a shmup fan's dream game. It's packed to the gills with modes and has unique gameplay that favors precision and planning over randomly shooting. In my opinion though, Zeit² caters perhaps too much to the hardcore shmup fan, which could alienate players who don't necessarily want to spend hours perfecting each mode. But if you're looking for a shooter that offers something new, than Zeit² is definitely worth looking into.

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