We have been through all sorts of variations of bullet hell before. Prodded through numerous meaningless gimmicks in search of something inspired, we have become jaded after countless shoot ‘em ups have failed to live up to their promised mechanics. Zeit Squared’s a little different. Brightside Games’ first effort is not the pariah that this dying genre is so desperately in need of, but it’s a neat, modest game that showcases plenty of potential through the developer’s willingness to take a novel idea and run with it.
Originating as a student project for a class taught by Osmos creator Andrew Nealon, Zeit Squared comes through with refreshingly experimental mechanics that are offset by some rough, rudimentary gameplay and iffy controls. Much like the aforementioned Osmos, the game’s avatar is a blue orb which expands and retracts with every shot, there are time control mechanics in place, and it follows the same premise: for every action there is a reaction. Bringing these concepts into the shoot ‘em up genre works better than you might expect.
Health is the most valuable commodity in Zeit Squared’s Arcade mode and surprisingly, is part of what makes the experience so unique. You begin each level with 100% health. The only guarantee is it won’t stay that way for long. Every shot fired depletes a point from the percentage, which can be earned back by making contact with enemies or picking up the occasional power-up. Making contact with enemy ships, letting blue-colored enemies pass by without killing them, and running into bullets fired from turrets will also cause the spherical orb surrounding your craft to shrink until the shields are fully removed and the ship explodes.
Time can be manipulated, allowing the aircraft to travel back in time for up to 4.2 seconds. This is beneficial for reclaiming lost health, moving out of the way of oncoming bullets, and even creating a shadow replica of the avatar which can be used to help out offensively. The shadow version repeats the actions that transpired for the length of time rewound, allowing faster mobility for your craft while it remains on-screen. This mechanic provides an easy way of dealing with multiple groups of enemies crowding the screen at one time. By interacting with or shooting the shadow, you’re able to further use it to your advantage by releasing a spread of bullets across the screen or clearing the screen completely. What makes this work is that it provides just enough leverage for the player that they’re able to escape from situations where they have cornered themselves against an array of bullets, reversing any damage, and giving the game a more console-oriented feel than the typical one-shot-and-you’re-dead shoot ‘em ups we’ve grown accustomed to.
It’s a shame that the enemy’s movement patterns are as uninspired and predictable as the backdrops framing each level. There’s really no environmental design. The backgrounds are mere variations of blues and reds and apart from turrets, permanent environmental objects are never suggested. There’s nothing to run into other than bullets, oncoming enemies, or bosses. After a few hours without much variation, that gets old. Aesthetically inoffensive, Zeit Squared’s visuals lack flair, but they get the idea across. The bigger problem is in the enemies that occupy the space – each enemy type follows the same movement pattern whenever they’re on-screen. Some float from the right-to-left quickly, others take their time about it, but they all move across similar patterns. This style of action in a shoot ‘em up is outdated by a couple decades. The boss battles are usually more interesting, although there was one that was frustrating for all the wrong reasons. In the “minelayer” level, a worm boss would appear at one side of the screen and without any warning, would sweep through and move unpredictably through the area, before exiting. The problem has more to do with a lack of obvious patterns than anything. The rest of Zeit Squared‘s bosses, however, are well-designed by comparison.
Zeit Squared is eager to mix things up. Succeeding in that regard, it offers up some great alternatives to arcade mode, such as a time, score attack, wave, tactics, and survival modes. These modes are fairly self explanatory, although there are a couple that are especially unique. Wave mode is an interesting inclusion, throwing a red wall behind the player, and abruptly ending the game if a single enemy makes its way through. Tactics, however, is the real highlight. Tactics mode is the most convincing case for bringing Zeit Squared into a conversation about moving the gameplay of shoot ‘em ups forward, as it reminds us that there is a rigid, structured way to earn a perfect score on any of the missions, and asks the player to shoot more carefully. Targets are assigned point values at the start of each Tactics round and by choosing not to shoot low-reward targets, they’ll often come back as more valuable enemies.
The premise of a shoot ‘em up which encourages players to be more selective about what they shoot may sound counterintuitive, but Zeit Squared’s risk/reward health system, coupled with some fine-tuned, innovative game mechanics, are engaging throughout. While it’s not much visually and the gameplay may be rudimentary at best, there aren’t a lot of options for new entries in this genre anymore and this one’s likely as close as we’ll get to a great experimental shoot ‘em up for a while.