The Good: Fresh physics-base puzzle action The Bad: Overlaid by fairly drab plotline The Ugly: And occasionally punctuated by puzzles requiring a frustrating level of twitch reflexes.
From the lead designer of Portal, comes a game that is not Portal. Quantum Conundrum has neither the narrative fire nor the mindbendingly joyous simplicity of Portal, but is a solid first person puzzle platformer with an interesting spin on the laws of physics, or lack thereof. Sure, some of the puzzles feel a little forced as they push you towards one very specific solution, and the combination of first person camera and timed jumps is unbelievably frustrating at times, and the plot is stultifying, but untangling some of the more challenging conundrums has a satisfaction all its own. Also, Quantum Conundrum, like Portal before it, scores something of an intellectual coupe – both are like absolutely no other game out there.
How, first, to describe QC? It is, as I’ve already mentioned, a first person puzzle platformer. The majority of the puzzles involve moving boxes around to depress pressure plates in the floor or stacking or otherwise using boxes to allow you to climb or traverse chasms. Simple? Not so much. You see, you’re playing as a young child visiting his eccentric genius uncle, a guy who has previously wowed you with jet packs and ice ray guns. He’s been dabbling into the more fundamental structure of the universe, and it has led him to create a glove which allows the wearer to transition into parallel dimensions where the laws of physics are different. The first dimension you gain access to is the fluffy dimension, where everything weighs almost nothing. You can lift heavy safes (an abundance of which your uncle just happens to have lying around), place them on pressure plates, transition back to our dimension, and the normal weight of the safe will depress the switch. You can throw a safe, return it to normal weight while in flight, and it will continue on the original trajectory to smash a heavy glass window. Things become far more complicated as the game adds three more dimensions into the mix – high gravity, slow time, and reverse gravity. Cardboard boxes can be made massive. You can throw a safe, slow time, and jump on board for the ride. Laser beams travel at a snail’s pace (which I believe is something a physics-dabbler named Einstein might have issues with). As the one wearing the glove, you are immune to the changes around you. It is also, I should note, a glove you essentially never see. Unlike pretty much all (absolutely all?) FPS games to date, which has your weapon or your hands or something visible in your vision, in QC you see nothing of yourself. I find that an interesting choice, because while the glove would block part of your field of view, it would also give you a sense of “you” in the game, which somehow QC lacks. Perhaps someone will write a doctoral thesis entitled The Appearance of Avatar Appendages in FPS Games and get a grant for a million bucks to study it. I want co-authorship!
The physics of these dimensions is consistent, but sometimes a little baffling. For example, I can stack cardboard boxes, and then flip to the dimension where they are heavy (they appear to be made of plates of steel welded together), but then I can’t climb on them. It’s like they’re greasy and I slide off. It’s obvious that the designers didn’t want me to climb on cardboard boxes because it allows me to solve a puzzle in some other than the approved way. Likewise, pieces of furniture that in real life stacks pretty easily, like tables, somehow misalign or jump off of one another to keep me from building towers of furniture and climbing on those. Your uncle’s whole house/lab is designed as separate chambers which contain very specific puzzles, the architecture (chasms, lasers, immovable furniture, catwalks) tortured to allow only one possible solution. To be fair, and to continue the Portal analogy, some of the Portal puzzles, especially the ones involving all the different colors of paint, felt a little forced as well.
Your uncle’s place is sort of funhouse cartoonish, but at the same time quite bland. The rooms are either unfurnished, or sparsely furnished with identical chairs, tables, and lamps, maybe the occasional suit of armor. There are pictures on the walls of your uncle’s various adventures and inventions, which your uncle makes a smarmy comment about when you look at them. That humor is very schticky, and becomes tiring before too long. Said comments, incidentally, are well voiced by the guy who played Q on Star Trek: TNG. I’m sure he has another name, but at this point I’ve forgotten it. Heck, he probably doesn’t know it either. I strongly suspect his tombstone will read “Guy who played Q on Star Trek.” The transition spaces, regions where you open a doorway and traverse some hallway, climb a flight of stairs, and then open another doorway to enter the next puzzle room, are as blatant a loading delay tactic as I’ve come across since Isaac riding elevators in Dead Space. And there are so many of them! The puzzles are loaded in tiny level chunks frequently, and while that does buy you a certain amount of smoothness, it has you traversing a lot of pointless hallways, while accompanied by said smarmy comments.
From a plot perspective the whole game is a little sluggish. While on a visit to your uncle’s house, some lab experiment traps him in an alternate dimension. It’s up to you to restart the house generators and rescue him. For roughly the first 2/3rds of the game, you’re making your way across the puzzle rooms for no other reason than to get to a generator at the far end. The last third, while I won’t give away what surprise there is, isn’t exactly worth jumping around on the couch over (that’s a reference to the recently divorcing Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, in case you missed it).
The online component consists of a leaderboard which shows you who completed which level fastest along with a bunch of other playstats like number of deaths, and who found the most secret statues scattered around the rooms. You can go back and try to play the same puzzles through faster or suss out the secret stuff – that’s not my cup of tea, but that’s about all for replayability. I suspect at some point, like Portal, a level building tool will be released and fan levels will spring up.
I think Quantum Conundrum suffers unfairly from the comparison to Portal. As a guy who has been gaming for something like 35 years, and game reviewing for about a decade, games like Portal don’t come along that often. By all means, cherish them when they do, but then don’t go holding it up like a yardstick against every other game that comes along – you’ll never be happy playing games again, and you’ll gig games that are perfectly good in their own right. Quantum Conundrum, thin plot and kind of bland atmosphere aside, has some great puzzle action to it. For the bargain price of $15, it is well worth the price of admission.
One final observation I want to make is that QC sometimes made me just a little bit queasy. Portal never did that. In fact, I can’t think of another game that did that except for the first Battlefield FPS. After a little study I discovered that game made me queasy because of a slight lag between commands from the mouse and the movement of the camera view on the screen, sort of an action stutter. I’m not sure why I had a problem with QC, but I did.
This review is based on a digital copy of Quantum Conundrum for the PC provided by Square Enix.