Hey, are you guys familiar with that ‘self-assisted time travel’ subgenre of platform/puzzle games that sprung up in the last decade or so? You know, games where you use time rewind weirdery and the antics of your pre-recorded past selves to solve mind-bending four-dimensional puzzles? Games like Gateways spring to mind as an example, and there’s probably dozens of Flash games that I’m forgetting I’ve played.
I love games like these.
No, that’s not me being an overplayed cynic. I genuinely love games like these! There’s just something about the Time Nonsense Puzzles genre that directly tickles my game enjoyment bone. I actively have to restrain myself to keep writing this review instead of replaying Gateways right now.
So when I ran into Defrost Games‘ Project Temporality — which purports to offer more or less exactly this experience, but in a ‘proprietary Sparta 3D engine’, my game-for-this-week choice was made before I even really knew I made it.
Just as if time travel was involved.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, medium. Mechanical, medium-high.)
(Game source: Bought it myself.)
Project Temporality’s main menu is… interesting? It immediately reminds me of Polarity‘s opening screen, in that both seem like the results-focused design decision of well-intentioned amateurs. In Project Temporality’s case, most of the menu screen real estate appears to be reserved for splash art images, which cycle as I mouse over the menu options. And the game’s logo. Even the screen’s left half, which ostensibly hosts the actual options, finds itself forced to let some background art shimmer through.
Options-wise, Project Temporality comes across as highly limited. A small list of broad graphics settings, audio percentages, FOV-for-some-reason, VSync, resolution — why is this game’s default resolution set to 1366×768? My old gaming laptop used to run that as native, but I stopped using that laptop like five years ago.
And no ‘controls’ options to speak of. Project Temporality isn’t the first game I’ve seen leave out the controls menu altogether, and it hasn’t become any less frustrating over time. I mean, I can almost accept an argument for rebindable controls being difficult to implement, or for it not being worth the effort to add them to a mobile game- or console-port. This doesn’t quite hold for people with unique computer setups or physical disabilities, but sure. But to not have any controls explanation? Whatsoever? Game, are you aware that people forget things sometimes? If I try to resume playing after a few days or so of inactivity, nothing kills my interest faster than not being allowed to look up what the controls were again.
It’s possible, of course, that Project Temporality’s controls are so simple and intuitive that they don’t really need reminders. I’d be highly surprised if that was the case in a game that deals with time travel… but alright, sure, you never know. Project Temporality might be the game that breaks the paradigm on this.
And because I can’t really find anything else in the menu worth endlessly obsessing about…
…I might as well dive right in.
To time travel adventures, then. Away!
Am I having time travel adventures yet?
Alright, let’s see what I got. I appear to be looking at the back of Generic Power Armor Space Marine Dude #6. Moving the mouse swivels the camera around their helmeted face. WASD makes some clunky-feeling movement happening. Spacebar jumps, equally clunky, and with a hilariously Mario-esque fist pump at the end.
I walk around the sci-fi room I’m currently in, taking in the sights with each jagged steps. It’s very colourful, I’ll give it that: the bright orange of the star outside contrasts nicely with the primarily-grey walls, floor, and ceiling, and other dashes of colour break the monotony wherever the starlight can’t reach. It’s very chaotic-feeling space, if I’m completely honest, cluttered with objects and colours and little items that I can’t seem to interact with. But ‘chaotic’ is by no means the same as ‘bad’; at least I have plenty of stuff to investigate here.
As I attempt to leave my starting room through the one exit hallway I can see, a grumpy-looking grey-haired man pops up.
“Good to see you’re not paralyzed, 87! Now, on with the trials! We need to find out if your brain stem has interfaced with the implant.” Ah, so it’s gonna be that kind of game, huh.
I walk through the equally-cluttered blue-grey hallways, tracking a little white figurine moving through a minimap in the top right corner as I do. I’ve actually switched over to my 360 controller: even though the keyboard works fine enough, every button prompt I’ve seen so far references 360 buttons. Finally, I chance upon another larger rectangular room. And…
One door of freedom, one door of doom? Classic. No two dudes to question, though, so I can’t rely on that old chestnut. But in that case, which one is…
I take some time out of my busy schedule to read a text log, carelessly scattered on a nearby couch.
Alright, back to the puzzle! Left or right, left or right, left or right…
Aha! The text log I just read used the phrase ‘right awestruck’. Nobody would use such a weird combination of words… unless they were trying to tell me something!
Head held high, I run into the right hallway. Forward, then left, then forward… everything appears to be going well… I’m coming on the final door, and…
It closes right in front of my face.
Dangit. No use, I can’t open that. And worse, the door at the start of the hallway is also closed. Guess I really am stuck here forever, huh.
Old Grey Man appears to taunt me some more. “Haha! You messed up, dog! Betcha wish you could turn back time right about now, huh?”
At the behest of another on-screen prompt, I press the Y button. This allows me to enter the Time Warp.
The Time Warp is actually as straightforward as it is fancy-sounding. By tilting the left analogue stick to the left, or by pressing and holding A, I can more or less ‘walk backwards’ through time. My silent space marine runs in reverse as the closed doors re-open to grant them passage. As I run back in time this way, the blue bar at the top of the screen starts draining, slowly: I assume that my time travel power stops working if it ever runs empty, but I make it all the way back to the beginning of the level before even putting a noticeable dent in it.
‘All the way back to the start’ is a little too far for my taste, though. So, by tilting the stick rightward or pressing and holding D, I can move myself forward through the same timeline again. It’s not until I hit Y again that the Time Warp collapses, and I rejoin the normal flow of time. Right outside the two-hallway split, ready to make the correct decision this time. And, sure enough, when I take the left hallway, the doors remain open, and I have full access to proceed.
Then I exit the game, delete all my saved information, and restart from the beginning. Not even time travel can adequately remove the shame of having fallen for that dumb trap. This time, armed with foreknowledge, I walk up to the split and into the left hallway before Grey Man even finishes talking.
The left door closes immediately.
Alright, alright. You win, Project Temporality. I rewind and take the right path, which is now the one that remains open. Grey Man says nothing as I proceed, but I can feel his eyes of derision on my back.
The second puzzle is much the same as the first. Two platforms provide passage across a deep pit. Both start moving the second I step on them. But, lo and behold: the first platform I pick stops moving halfway across! Grey Man once again drives home the point that ‘this doesn’t have to be the future’, as I play around with the platform’s somewhat poor hitboxing.
One rewind and one ‘correct’ platform later, I move on. Hey, I’m getting the hang of this already! This time travel stuff isn’t so hard to wrap your head around. I wonder if they’re gonna make it any more difficult than ‘heads, no, tails’, though?
The puzzle that follows that little admonishment introduces several new elements at once. Giant red ground buttons can be activated by standing on them, but they only remain active when pressed. Some of those buttons have holographic keys over them, which indicates that this button opens — or closes! — doors of the associated colour.
This puzzle, then, is not so easily solved simply by rewinding time. Doing so gets me out of the room, but also undoes the button’s door-opening effect. And I need to go through that door… if only there was some way I could be in two places at once.
Ah! At this point, Project Temporality actually becomes interesting. I am introduced to the Time Clone mechanic, which works more or less like this: if I go into Time Warp mode and rewind time, at any point, I can press the B button to create a temporal clone of myself. That clone that takes all the actions that I did, the actions that I just rewound through, up to the point where I hit Time Warp; at that point, it just stops moving, standing around aimlessly.
So, how to solve this first puzzle? First, I stand outside the locked room. I walk inside, step on the button, and hear the sound of doors opening and closing behind me. Then, I Time Warp back to the point where I’m outside the room… I hit the B button and re-enter normal time, as a shimmering red version of myself runs up to the button. Exactly like I would’ve done. Exactly like I would’ve done. When Red-me reaches the button, the door closes again — in front of me, this time — and I’m free to turn around and enter the now-opened exit hallway.
It only occurs to me after doing all this that I used to be Red-me. I’m green now, all of a sudden.
The colour-changing doesn’t stop there, either. For the puzzle after this one, I actually need to spawn two pre-programmed Time Clones. This is a little trickier than doing it just once: once a clone has been created, I can’t rewind past the moment it was created without absorbing it back into myself. I can’t have a clone spawn another clone, in other words: all clones have to come from the source, me.
Finally, ‘three minutes’ in — feels like thirty — I find myself approaching a glowing blue portal. I understand this to be a level exit portal before Grey Man chimes in to tell me that it is. Don’t ask me why, it just has that look.
I enter the portal. Level complete! And I earn… two out of a maximum three stars. It turns out that spinning off time clones does actually permanently drain my blue energy bar. And the three green star icons along that bar, one of which was red by the time I reached the exit… yeah, I understand how this works now. Use as little clone-time as possible for the highest possible score.
Alright. This has been fun! And since a quick peek at the level select screen reveals I have something like thirteen more levels to get through, I think I’d best get on with the time-bending. Will Project Temporality remain strong as I figure out the mechanics more and more clearly? Only…
No, I’m not gonna that joke. Too easy. Just check back in after I conquer all of the fourth dimension.