I’m walking. I’m walking. I’ve stopped. The platform is moving. I’m there.
This is what runs through your mind whilst playing Defrost Games’ Project Temporality, a time-bending puzzler that forces you to work with yourself. Rather than obsess over the timing of when a door will open, a box will fall or a ledge will drop down, you’ll stay focused on yourself—yourselves, rather, seeing as how you’ll be cloning yourself nearly a dozen times over in most levels. This creates a uniquely progressive puzzling experience in which, beyond manipulating the tools of the environment, you become the tools themselves and wind up quite cooperating with yourself. (I’m still waiting for Purple to return the favor Green did him, the cheapskate.)
"You're not getting out of there until you pay me that $20!"
With the aid of an ad hoc time machine implanted in your brain, it falls to you, 87—the soulless moniker you bear throughout the game—to run a gauntlet of tests. In the depths of space, in a fragile orbit around Jupiter, you test—you, the latest in a suspiciously long line of subjects to undergo the implant procedure—under the strict watch of a team of scientists, led by the ship’s emphatic admiral.
Fortunately, the tests only throw you to the wolves after you’ve become a full-fledged jackal. A well-designed tutorial guides you through the early mechanics: rewind time to escape death; create another you to press a button or control a platform; and differentiate between all manner of temporal doodads. Gates, keys, platforms, lasers—collectively these form a colorful variety of levels to navigate, matched in their variety only by the versatility of yourself.
"I thought you were gonna press the button!"
I came to realize that I have multiple roles in tests. First I would assess the experiment, probing the corners and prodding the buttons. I was testing the length of the dog’s chain. And then I’d start playing with building blocks, establishing the order of operations and then summoning clones to match it. Of course, I’m willing to bet that other players would develop different playstyles—a strange but interesting option for a puzzle game, much like the requirement to conserve resources.
What, you thought you were an all-powerful Time Lord? You’re only allowed up to 11 clones per level and have a limited amount of energy with which you can rewind time, so you’ll have to figure out the most efficient option among possible solutions. Spend your time frivolously (pun intended) and you’ll be left cloneless in a now-impossible test. You’re also graded according to how well you spend your time, so achievement hunters will have a 3-star rank to chase after.
Once you master a mechanic, it is added to another—multiplicatively, not as a substitution. Opening a single door snowballs into an uphill race against time, catalyzed by a one-time button and steepened by temporality fielded objects, which remain static even during time manipulation (i.e. a closed door stays closed if you rewind 10 seconds back). By the end of Project Temporality, I found myself moving and thinking with a fluidity that I’d have called impossible when I first started, back when I was stumped by the mere notion of managing multiple clones. It quite literally taught me to think differently, if only within the confines of the Jupiter station, and was all the more engaging because of it.
The scenery and graphics helped with that whole engaging thing, too.
But no matter how confident I became in my abilities, I could never rid myself of an unnerving sinking feeling. It began with the strange phenomena of Jupiter being visible from every window—an abnormality highlighted by one of the many patient logs littered throughout the station—and the haunting, empty seats dotting the test zones, their stone gaze belittling me to the point that I felt less like a human pursuing admirable research and more like a rat after cheese. With every log I discovered, the experiments appeared more and more sinister. Even so, I tore through intermediate stages hoping to uncover more.
I’d come for the puzzles and found Hell, but stayed for both.
Subjects who’d volunteered for testing had confided in fleeting scribbles how voluntary had become forced, before being sentenced to the silent guillotine that is cryonic sleep. They’re the lucky ones; others were trapped in an unending purgatory, unable to rewind far enough to escape death but equally unable to be freed by it. Time cloning takes a toll on others still, rendering their minds a hideous nest of strings and puppets. They finish each other’s sentences but don’t know who they are.
"Press that one."
"No, press that one!"
"Will you two shutup!?"
But that’s just the subjects; the scientists are the real madmen. They began the experiments with the best of intentions and the highest of expectations, but, ironically, were done in by exactly what they’d come to research: time. As tests grew stale, they introduced more extreme scenarios which, in turn, required more—that is, replacement—testers. Morals and ethics were cast aside for the sake of data, left to degrade along with sanity. The Admiral, too, follows this path, unknowingly revealing his weakening mental state as he struggles to interact with you.
It is neither a horror game nor one focused on narrative, but Project Temporality tells an excellent and disturbing story by not saddling it with exposition and cutscenes and instead allowing the player to find it themselves. The deal is further sweetened by a delightful soundtrack best described as orchestral EDM.
Puzzles stay challenging and never grow old—which is particularly impressive given how much time you spend in some puzzles, unlocking and then rewinding new sections with your clones—and all make effective use of the game’s poster-child mechanic. Thanks to your time implant, you’re able to play every last inch of a puzzle and then watch all the pieces come together like clockwork. Seeing yourself perform well is a strange but satisfying sensation, more so when you reach into the double-digit range of clones, and it’s always amusing to stop just short of effectively calling yourself an idiot (or doing so and admitting it in the title of a review).
If it weren’t for a handful of infrequent but annoying technical hitches—I got stuck inside walls one too many times—I’d call it perfect, but even as it stands, Project Temporality is an inventive puzzler flavored with surprisingly sobering and often humorous writing that could give Valve’s Portal a run for its money.