Indie Wonderland: Project Temporality

A few hours in

Alright, I did it.

I won!

In the course of about six real-world hours, I powered my way through Project Temporality’s 14 puzzle levels. I’m no speedrunner, that’s for damn sure. But nevertheless, I rose from the humble beginnings of using time-rewinding powers to escape obvious traps, all the way to a massive eleven-clone time-locked puzzle blowout. It was quite something to get through, let me tell you.

Then I threw myself a party.

All me were invited.

All in all, I had some decent fun with Project Temporality. I don’t know if it’s a good match for everyone, though: while I enjoyed most of the time I spent with it, it’s definitely a very peculiar game. It’s flawed in many places, glitch, clunky to control. Its graphical style never really moves on from ‘colourful clutter chaos’. And I can’t say I’m a major fan of its text-log based storytelling, and its occasionally heavy-handed characterization.

But still…

The phrase that comes to mind when I think about Project Temporality is ‘A for effort’. And I know people usually mean that phrase as a stealth insult: sure, you didn’t win, your product didn’t pan out, you didn’t achieve whatever it was you set out to achieve, but at least you tried. But the thing is: when I look at Project Temporality, it’s obvious to me that its six-man development team has put tons of efforts into it. And not just into putting it together, but in making it as good as they possibly could: working around the limitations of their engine, their tools, and possibly their own expertise and skill levels. I used the phrase ‘well-intentioned amateurs’ before, but that’s honestly the vibe I get from Project Temporality: driven people, trying to make the game they want to make to all the extent they can muster. A for effort.

But where does that vibe come from?

Does it come from these little flower niches?

I really enjoy the puzzle design in Project Temporality. Probably the strongest part of the game, as well as it should be. I’ve seen other reviews state that Project Temporality ‘runs out of ideas early on’, I just can’t find myself agreeing with that idea. Rather, I feel that Project Temporality cleverly uses a small set of ideas and mechanics to build a range of interesting puzzles. And it expands over time, periodically adding new elements to the mix as the puzzle range on the existing set starts to run dry.

There is no denying that Project Temporality can feel slow, at first. When the only elements at play are door-opening buttons and moving platforms, it can never take long before you start feeling a little mechanical déjà vu. But that initial time span doesn’t last long, and Project Temporality quickly adds all sorts of new stuff to the mix. Single-push buttons, single-use buttons, lasers, mirrors, portable keys…

And you and your time clones to deal with all of that.

The pace picks up particularly when ‘temporality fields’ are introduced. These green particle effect filters indicate that the object they’re around is not influenced by your time rewinding: doors remain opened or closed, platforms stay moved, buttons are forevermore pressed. You get the idea. I like this mechanic a lot, as it suddenly introduces a whole new necessary mode of thinking… if even it does mess with your established understanding of the lore a little bit. You can rewind time, but you can’t rewind time for these objects? But you can use the ‘reset’ function, which rewinds time for everything a set amount? How does that… how does that even work?

Rule number one of fictional time travel: don’t think about how it works.

Another pacing trick I quite like is found in Project Temporality’s sprawling levels. Rather than presenting puzzles back-to-back, Project Temporality actually uses its level space to adds little areas of breathing room in-between high cognitive load areas. These areas are usually where you’ll get yelled at by Admiral Grey Man, and where you’ll find the text logs that serve as this game’s story. The fact that you have to walk through those large spaces at your usual slogging-job pace is occasionally annoying, particularly if you just want to get to the next puzzle or to the end of a level. But I like that they exist. I’m particularly a fan of the observation chambers that you sometimes find in the earlier levels: like in Portal, the fact that you can access these spaces helps sell the whole setup as the scientific experiment it’s framed as.

Plus, you can hock loogies at your past selves.

And finally, one thing I personally very much appreciate is the fact that Project Temporality is not overbearing. It’s anything but, to be honest. Not even in the early levels are the puzzle solutions ever really ‘spelled out’ for you: while the individual puzzle elements each receive more or less direct attention, the game practically assumes that you can put the ensuing solution together more or less yourself. And this… It’s honestly something of a double edge. On the one hand, if you get stuck in Project Temporality, you get stuck: with no in-game hint system, there’s little for the hindered player to do but scour the Internet for F.A.Q.s. On the other hand, the feeling you get when putting a puzzle solution together ‘yourself’ — clever level design notwithstanding — is one that is hard to emulate.

For instance, the first ‘paradox puzzle’ — never explicitly named as such in-game, but that’s what Steam achievements are for — has a moment like this. Working your way around the multiple interlocking temporality fields in that puzzle room requires applying some new ideas to you knowledge of old game elements… and once you do, once you finally figure out how to make it work, you’ll feel the result all the stronger for the game never really having told you how to do it.

In fairness, there is some ‘difficulty’ modulation, in the blue ‘time energy’ bar that determines your final score. As long as you understand the core conceit of each puzzle, it can usually be solved relatively easily by just throwing long-lasting time clones at it. The challenge, then, comes from using as little time as possible to get where you need to go. But while this is an interesting system, and usually pretty well-calibrated to the overall level difficulty — there was only one level that massively overestimated how much time-time I’d need — it won’t do you much good if you can’t figure that core conceit out to begin with.

But you you can… and if you do solve the puzzle yourself…


Unfortunately, the point where you start getting these kinds if puzzles is also this point that Project Temporality’s more serious mechanical issues start showing.

The temporality fields are a great idea, they really are. I really like how they force an additional layer of forward planning on a game that’s otherwise lousy with consequence-free retries: if I do this, then this, and then… fuck, the door got closed forever. Guess I better retry! Which is not to say that messing up temporality fields has major consequences: you can always use the dedicated reset button to return to your last ‘waypoint’. So temporality fields are more punishing than usual, but they don’t actually punish.

It’s just that temporality fields don’t always actually work. On more than one occasion, I found myself running into problems the rules told me should not have existed. The aforementioned paradox puzzle, for instance, has a temporality-fielded door that very much does close if you rewind time, green squares be damned. And in other cases, it looked as if the exact choice of when to rewind can have a huge influence on the field decision to trigger or not.

I saw you open, you rat speckled bastard! YOU SHOULD BE OPEN RIGHT NOW.

Worse, the temporality fields don’t always reset, either. One puzzle involves activating two moving platforms with a single-use button: one fielded, one not. The idea is to rewind the unfielded platform while the fielded one keeps moving, creating a bridge of sorts over the chasm you want to cross. But after messing up once and resetting, I found that the fielded platform would always immediately activate. It wouldn’t listen to the button, it ignored Time Warping, and even the reset function didn’t affect it. In the end, I had to redo the whole level.

The reset function is pretty dangerous in and by itself, now that I’m on the topic. The left gamepad trigger returns you to your previous ‘waypoint’, no questions asked… but waypoints are only instantiated before rooms that have temporality field puzzles in them. And even inside any one level, not nearly all rooms have these puzzles. Meaning that if you cross one temporality field puzzle, and then get stuck in the following non-fielded one, and you hit the reset button by reflex… Well, what I’m saying is that I hope you enjoy redoing things.

Which, given the mechanical subject matter of this game, you honestly probably *do*.

And while temporality field mishaps are Project Temporality’s biggest mechanical annoyance, they are by no means its only one. The controls, for instance, are massively clunky. It takes serious effort to get your dude to where you want them to go. And interactions between Time Marine Dude and any hitbox-generating environmental object are always an exercise in frustration. Your character gets snagged on doors and fences so easily, you have no idea. Stuck, too! On multiple occasions, I actually had to use the time rewind to get my dude out of a somewhat too-intimate get-together with a chain-link barricade. Doors, too, and lasers, and benches… And don’t even get me started about the special hell that is ‘jumping onto platforms’.

If you play your cards right, it’s even possible to get stuck out of game bounds. Here, I’m running around in a pit that should have killed me when falling in.

Graphically, Project Temporality is… eh. Eh. The stuff I said before still more-or-less holds. While the good colour use persists, most of the environments start feeling like cluttered grey boxes fairly early on. And because there is so much clutter, and relatively few assets, the whole thing gets this samey atmosphere. I actually stopped noticing the cool environmental details in the hallways and the test rooms, just because there are so many of them. I just get information-overloaded at some point! And all the decorations in the world won’t help if the levels’ core aesthetic don’t really ever change.

To you, this might be an interesting-looking scaffold stage with a cool orange background effect. To me, this is ‘yet another Project Temporality level’.

And finally, as far as Project Temporality’s story goes…

…I’m sure you’re expecting me to be all negative about this, but Project Temporality’s storytelling is actually a bit of a left-field surprise. It’s not particularly good, I won’t go quite that far. But it’s certainly interesting. The story is only told through communication popups and through the optional text logs scattered throughout the level, which didn’t give me very high hopes of it. But I was surprised to find that the aforementioned text logs actually use careful and subdued character vignettes to build Project Temporality’s larger narrative atmosphere. While you never actually meet any other characters — because that would’ve required more than one humanoid character model — you do actually get to know them as characters. And the slow trickle of details adds a much-needed layer of subtle suspense to what would otherwise be a clichéd ‘science gone evil and wrong’ story.

It’s *usually* subtle.

I mean, you know how this story plays out. You’ve always known. You’ve known how it plays out ever since you saw that first ‘ominous’ blood-splatter pattern on a random wall.

And then again, when you saw the exact same texture re-used a hundred times.

But while the story’s heart ever beats on to its inevitably predictable conclusion, I do take solace in the fact that the people I’ve got to read about during the journey came across as actual people. I don’t know; it sounds like a small thing to praise, but it makes the whole experience feel that much more alive to me.

You don’t know how much it made me smile to find the *janitor*’s text log.

Final thoughts

It has occurred to me that I’d love to play more of Project Temporality in a different graphical setting. The grey box rooms really do wear on you after a while. And the star-that-was-Jupiter from every window, c’mon. There’s only so much bright orange one guy can handle. Can’t we play in, like, a nice jungle or something? Or an ice cave. Or a canyon on the surface of Mars. We’re in science fiction land already! Go wild.

I would genuinely like to play more of Project Temporality. I enjoyed solving its time-bending puzzles, racing my own clones through abandoned science halls and carrying keys and laser locks to and fro. I’d enjoy it even more if the mechanical issues were straightened out, and if the frankly plodding movement speed could at least be made to feel more rapid. But at its core, at the very heart of its gameplay, I had a lot of fun with Project Temporality. And I’d like to have some of that fun again.

Project Temporality can be bought on Steam for the equivalent of fifteen Euro. It’s a little pricey, honestly, for the quality and the production values on display. I’ve definitely had my money’s worth, though… but then again, I do enjoy this sub-genre to an almost irrational degree.

Whether or not Project Temporality is worth fifteen bucks to you is a question only you answer. But if you’re willing to overlook the graphical design skills of well-intentioned amateurs, and if you’re capable of working past the plodding pace and the occasional frustrating control glitch, Project Temporality offers a clever and satisfying set of time-bending puzzles for even the most jaded chrononaut.

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Jarenth has seen eternity, man! Eternity! He just doesn’t remember *when*, exactly. Follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam for more of these quality comments. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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