Back in 1994, a company called Clickteam debuted Klik n Play, an amateur development program that allowed anyone to participate in the process of creating and sharing their own video games. One of the best parts of the software was its simplicity, which forewent complex coding in favor of a drag-and-drop environment with an intuitive "event-based" system to help newcomers form the rules for their worlds and characters. The developers particularly encouraged its use in school as a way of introducing children to the concepts behind computer programming.
What does any of this have to do with Arrow Time U, another low-budget indie game making use of Nintendo Web Framework? Simply put, it feels hardly different than the projects this reviewer worked on as a child using Klik n Play back in the late 90's. Make no mistake — some truly wonderful games have come out of seasoned developers who feel comfortable using the modern-day equivalents of this software — but Arrow Time U is definitively not one of those games. Packed wall to wall with mistakes and a lack of polish, it’s another flat entry in a long line of titles raising concerns about quality control on the eShop — especially when you consider the $1.99 price tag and the lofty $750 goal the game failed to raise on Indiegogo.
Like many of its Web Framework contemporaries, the issues with Arrow Time U are evident from the second you boot up the software. Let’s not mince words: every element of this game’s presentation is atrocious. First and foremost, it seems generous to call the graphics anything but “functional” — the primitive onscreen objects are a jumbled mess of clashing elements that look particularly ghastly when covered in tutorial text at the beginning of the game. The sound design doesn't fare much better; repetitive sound effects and music will test your patience, especially the "Ready? Go!" before each level and this original piece of music (with lyrics!). Most alarmingly, it misses key elements that would help it feel like a finished and quality product, such as a screen between a failed attempt at a level and your next try. One could argue this cuts back on frustration as you’re returned quickly to gameplay, but the result feels jarring and amateurish — “game over” screens are kind of an understood feature in modern games of this ilk.
Speaking of “game over” screens, you’d likely be seeing quite a lot of them had the developer thought to put them in. Arrow Time U can be difficult at times, mostly for the wrong reasons. The main concept is as such: guide your blue arrow to the portal while avoiding obstacles, utilizing gimmicks and fighting against a time limit. Your powers include a meter-limited “slide” to move through any object, the ability to slow down time, and a mechanic that allows you to glide diagonally without changing the actual direction of the arrow. After completing each stage you’re given a rating that presumably sums up your performance.
Most of Arrow Time U’s levels have a puzzle element for which a hint is available to view on the pause screen. Unfortunately, while the developer’s heart seems firmly in the right place regarding these puzzles — some of the ideas seem pretty good on paper — their actual execution ranges from confusing to maddeningly incompetent. For example, in one stage you’re surrounded by a ring of 12 smaller portals resembling the hands of a clock. To reach the outside of the ring where the big portal lies, you have to enter the smaller ones that correspond with the “clock code” just above it. This should be a routine manoeuvre, but the clunky turning and poor acceleration of the arrow ensure you’ll struggle to place it in any portal between the cardinal directions. Even more aggravating is a level that requires you to hit dash panels and slide through walls with timing that never feels satisfying or totally under your control; then there are outright lame puzzles like the one in level 19, whose hint offers only “patience” and involves waiting until the clock is nearly up to make the portal appear.
But even some of the stages that do work correctly feel unfair. Arrow Time U's biggest mistake is in its core design, which expects an obnoxious amount of trial and error of its players. Some levels are so big compared to the time limit that it's well-nigh impossible to navigate and complete them the first time around. Others shove you into claustrophobic rooms and force you to literally guess which portal to take to the next area (a la Sabrina's gym in the original Pokémon Red and Blue). Good puzzles are intuitive, making players use the abilities they've been given in ways that feel natural given the level layouts. In this game, however, you never feel totally responsible for your success or failure; you remain at the mercy of the game's fickle design from start to finish. Because of that, you'll rarely (if ever) be having fun with the experience, and that's the kiss of death to any video game aiming to engage the player.
Baffling missteps are all over Arrow Time U, and because of this it’s likely you won’t be returning to any of the game’s 40 levels after completing them. This is primarily due to shoddy collision detection and poor control, both of which will often leave you more relieved to have cleared a stage than proud of having conquered its challenges. Yet the problem goes deeper than that: Arrow Time U brings nothing to the table that gamers haven’t seen done before, and done better. It’s the type of cookie-cutter game you see produced en masse for mobile phones — a derivative, sloppy imitation product that came off the production line half-baked.
Learning how to make games is an incredibly fun experience, and one that we suggest any fan of the medium at least take a crack at, but even the $1.99 price tag of Arrow Time U is too high to justify paying for what feels like a failed homework assignment in game design.