TinyDino Games’ The Ambassador: Fractured Timelines is as delightful as it is bewildering, being engaging and impactful while also committing wholeheartedly to the most outlandish and absurd ideas possible. You play as Gregor, a man who rips his own eyes out to become the first rank of the Eternal Fellowship’s members, the Ambassador of Time. Think Gandalf meets Time Lord, just with a way higher body count. Shortly after receiving a magic throwing spear, time-stopping powers, and an energy staff, you discover that someone took out most of the fellowship, and now you need to kick ass across three different realms to find the culprit. And probably stab them a lot.
The ensuing chaos is an absolutely wonderful twin-stick shooter that’s also kind of a roguelike, if you want. At the start you can choose a more relaxed difficulty that removes all the dying and restarting, which you’d think would ruin the experience but surprisingly works. The only real progression is finding new armor or robes and alternate weapons, so a lot of it plays out more like a traditional SNES-era action game — just with better controls and performance.
That’s part of what makes The Ambassador: Fractured Timelines so challenging to piece apart. On paper, it’s a relatively simple gameplay loop. Blast your way through various fantasy entities, beat a boss at the end, track down the villain, save the day. Yet in the heat of the moment, it’s one of the most remarkably unconventional action games.
Without any traditional melee attacks, you have to constantly think about how you approach your spear. Do you use it like a kunai? A boomerang? Do you swap it for a slower sword? Perhaps a sledgehammer that you have to pick up manually but deals “massive damage”? Two cutlasses that spiral around you unpredictably? Every option wildly alters your approach to each handcrafted level. Your magic staff and its alternatives might be more traditional projectile attacks, but they have limited charges that have to regenerate. Your armor can give you a boost in various regards, but at a cost. With only three hit points by default, every choice matters.
The most substantial twist to gameplay though is Gregor’s time-stopping power. The power to temporarily freeze anyone close to you is game-changing amid increasingly complex and lethal levels. Unlike in other time-manipulating games such as Singularity or TimeShift, your power impacts everything and is constantly integrated. There’s the obvious stuff — stunned enemies stay vulnerable for longer, and temporarily unlocked doors stay open until your power runs out. Then bigger wrinkles unveil themselves.
Not only can you stop projectiles, but you can freeze an enemy while they’re aiming, lining yourself up behind one of their allies and ensuring friendly fire mishaps aplenty. Your opponents’ traps are precisely aligned — would be a shame if someone upset their timing, wouldn’t it? Suddenly a barrage becomes a steady flow that ensures you can walk through gracefully without taking a hit. Freeze a large rock in place and wail on it a bit, and all that force magnifies like in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, bursting forth into a miniboss to shatter their defenses. Decisions like this aren’t elaborate, but they become instinctual within an hour of journeying through The Ambassador’s many trials.
The Ambassador: Fractured Timelines interweaves all these elements masterfully. You go from standard grunts and goblins to teleporting druids and magical golems with devastating ranged attacks of their own, accompanied by ever deadlier traps amid complex mazes. Solving each scenario is as much about reflex as it is wit, all brought to life with sharp pixel art and fluid controls. The sound design is underwhelmingly muted, but the score more than makes up for that.
There’s also a remarkable sense of humor tempered by some genuine drama. Like the bit with Gregor’s eyes, bosses are comically over the top, like a warlord who insists on kicking tables at you with little assistants popping out of a trapdoor to place more for him to harness. Forest animals like bunny rabbits and large birds can also be slain as precious food you can eat to regain health — but if you stick it out with damage sustained until clearing the level, you’ll get a free health refill and the food prepared for next time. Which is horrible, yet very practical in the heat of the moment.
Yet the tales of woe from the few citizens you find amid the destruction hold genuine pathos. Your fellowship has left much to be desired among the commoners, and it’s on you to try to make up for it. I’m particularly fond of an enemy deserter you meet early on who begs you for mercy. That Doctor Who energy imbued in The Ambassador: Fractured Timelines doesn’t simply correspond to your powers, but the role you play in this world. Many games have struggled to encapsulate this feeling, and The Ambassador makes it look easy. As it stands, I struggle to find another game that offers quite what The Ambassador can. It’s a credit to TinyDino’s two-person team.