Quantum Conundrum Review
If you like puzzle games, there's very little reason to not go out and buy Quantum Conundrum.
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Airtight Games, an independent developer who has been around for almost a decade, released Quantum Conundrum this past summer. With a crew that includes Kim Swift, former lead designer on Portal, we had high hopes. Thankfully, this game didn't disappoint...too much. It's a beautiful game with tons of mind-bending puzzles and a very entertaining voice over by John de Lancie of Star Trek fame. That's not to say it's perfect, though: platforming elements that frustrate more often than not detract significantly from the overall experience, and repetitive scenery gets old sooner than we expected it to. It's still a very enjoyable experience overall, and will be a fantastic treat for gamers that love a good head scratching. If you have to choose between the Portal games and this one, though, the older hit is definitely the superior of the two.
If you thought your family was interesting, imagine having an uncle who happens to be a scientific genius that keeps coming up with exciting new inventions. Now, consider the fact that you have to spend the occasional weekend with said uncle...but this time, something has gone terribly wrong. This is the entire premise behind the game Quantum Conundrum: your uncle, the wacky and eccentric Professor Fitz Quadwrangle, has somehow gotten himself trapped in a "pocket dimension" that you have to help him escape from. Using his latest invention, the Inter-Dimensional Shift device (hereafter referred to as the IDS), you have to make your way from one end of his physics-defying mansion to the other in order to power up a series of generators that will hopefully allow him to escape back into the normal dimension.
This game was designed by Kim Swift, a former lead designer with Valve who worked on the hit game Portal; as such, it should come as no surprise that the largest component of Quantum Conundrum is its puzzle element. The ISD allows your character to switch between one of five dimensions: Normal, Fluffy, Heavy, Slow, and Reverse Gravity. Each dimension is named in such a way as to be quite self explanatory—the Fluffy dimension, for instance, turns everything into fuzzy pink objects that you can easily lift—but they're used in very strange ways. Some of the time, you can shift between dimensions voluntarily, while other times the individual level limits the frequency of dimensional shifts or the number of dimensions available to you. Working within the constraints of every individual room, your character must traverse from one end of the mansion to another by bending the elements of each dimension to your advantage. Wearing the IDS glove prevents your character from becoming altered by the different dimensions, the element of the game's conceit that allows you to enjoy the effects without being subject to them.
This particular element of the game is executed brilliantly. The different dimensions may seem simplistic, but the ways they must be used and combined ranges from simply entertaining to deliciously challenging. At the start of the game, players may find some of the puzzles to be quite simple, and they are—you have to learn the mechanics of the game somehow, after all. The difficulty ramps up fairly quickly, and the addition of each new dimension means significantly more challenges. Quantum Conundrum has over 50 different individual rooms that kept us mentally engaged throughout the entire brain-scratching ride.
The game's most prominent element after the puzzles is its platforming. Unfortunately, this fact is a decidedly negative thing. First-person platforming is responsible for producing some of the most frustrating gaming experiences since this form of media began, and it hasn't really gotten any better. There are some levels in Quantum Conundrum that lacked any puzzle element at all. They were based entirely on platforming, usually forcing the protagonist to hop across a series of objects to reach the other side. Professor Quadwrangle even calls your character an inter-dimensional bunny at one point, drawing some unneeded attention to this aspect of the game. These levels were the most frustrating, as the first-person perspective prevented us from adequately gauging where we were in space; the majority of our "deaths" were accidental ones that resulted from platforming mishaps. While the occasional bit of platforming could have been fun and a pleasant break from the puzzle component, its frequency combined with the frustrating elements of this particular gaming mechanic resulted in far more headaches than even a puzzle game should have.
Scattered throughout your uncle's mansion, you'll find a series of small "inventions" that have been discarded for one reason or another. Some can be found either out in the open or hidden away in hard-to-reach places that can only be accessed by thinking outside of a room's typical solution. These don't add a great deal to the game, other than getting some additional quips from your uncle over the mansion's intercom, or acquiring an achievement or trophy for your gaming collection. Additionally, each wing of the mansion houses a blueprint that you can place in a receptacle located in the main hall. This will eventually grant you access to the final puzzles of the game, where you can only shift to dimensions whose blueprints you've already acquired.
The controls in this game work beautifully...at least, early on. As far as command responsiveness goes, the only limiting factor is the reaction time of the gamer. Switching dimensions is a breeze, and standard movements like jumping and grabbing onto items are carried out with ease. Eventually, as the number of dimensions you have access to increases, things can get a bit complicated. Rapid dimension shifting in order to make it through a room can result in jumbled hand movements simply because you have to press a lot of buttons. This has more to do with the puzzling element, though, and the correct button presses will come with time and practice. It's comforting to know, though, that as long as you have a solution in mind, success will only be helped by a fantastic and simple control scheme.
There's not a whole lot of draw to come back to this game after finishing it, except for those gamers who are highly competitive. Gaming achievements are available for folks who make it through levels without dying, who complete a level within a certain time limit, and who want to find every collectible item. These don't add a whole lot to the experience, other than a sense of satisfaction. There are online leaderboards, however, where gamers can compete for the best times. If you like being number one, that element may keep you plugged in to the ISD; otherwise, once you finish the story, there's not much to do.
A downloadable pack of additional puzzles can be acquired, titled The Desmond Debacle. Offering some additional hours of puzzle game play, it lacks any narrative relevance or quirky voice overs. While it could be suitable for the puzzle junky, there's nothing here for the gamer that's more interested in the fate of Professor Quadwrangle and his experiments. IKE-aramba!, which will presumably be an additional puzzle pack, has a scheduled release date of September 14th.
Pacing & Flow
The individual rooms move at a perfect pace for a puzzling game. Some require lightning-fast reflexes, while others allow for a more thoughtful approach. The problem with the pacing comes in the transition from one room of puzzles to another. Initially, players are likely to get through the simple rooms found at the beginning of the game fairly quickly. These creates a relatively constant stream of wise-cracks from your uncle that adds an entertaining dry humor to the whole experience.
As puzzles get increasingly harder and require more trial and error, the between-room segments feel as though they're further apart. This makes the voice over comments seem random and almost without real purpose. Eventually, this detached atmosphere, as well as any elements of frustration that you're bound to experience when playing a puzzle game for too long, results in "Quantum Burnout"—we had to turn the game off a number of times just because our brains started to hurt, and that's no fun at all.
One other thing to keep in mind: you cannot fail. Deaths lack any consequence, other than setting you back to the beginning of the room you're currently in. This encourages trial and error, allowing gamers to try different solutions without fear of any lasting damage should they fail. It doesn't hurt that the "You're Dead" scenes have a plethora of witty comments that make note of all the things you won't be able to do once you're no longer a part of the physical world.
Let's be clear: this game is about the puzzles, first and foremost. The story is simply an excuse for chaining the various puzzles together...but it does exist, nonetheless. It's thin, a bit shallow, and doesn't have any of the weight or urgency found in Portal, this game's spiritual predecessor. Nevertheless, it's quite fun, and Q—wait, our mistake—Professor Quadwrangle as voiced by John de Lancie is simply a delight.
There's not a whole lot in terms of script for this game. The only person who speaks is your uncle, the eccentric Professor Fitz Quadwrangle, who is trapped in a pocket dimension speaks to you through his mansion's intercom system. At times, he's sinister, playful, boorish, kind, and always entertaining. John de Lancie does a remarkable job breathing personality into this larger-than-life individual...but he's no GLaDOS. The trouble with having a relatively amiable guide whose current predicament involves some short-term memory loss is that eventually, once the player figures out how to solve puzzles independently, is that he loses significance. Once the conceit of the game is established—that you're activating generators to power the mansion while your uncle tries to remember what's happened to him—there's very little more that can be added. Still, he remains entertaining, if ineffective, right up to the end of the game. The biggest quibble we had with the character actually had nothing to do with the quality of the voice over, but rather the fact that the voice didn't fit the man. Pictures throughout the mansion depict the professor as a very fit, dashing, older man who—if we're sticking with Star Trek actors—looks like he should have been voiced by Patrick Stewart instead.
This is probably the one place where we'll be mentioning IKE, or the Interdimensional Kinetic Entity. He is a small alien creature your uncle has adopted as a pet, who occasionally shows us to "help" the player. This helping primarily consists of standing with a battery for your glove while looking cute. He doesn't do much, but he's the only character in the game that you see in the flesh, so it's worth discussing how well he's realized. In short: very well. IKE has plenty of facial expressions complemented by tons of body language, so despite the fact that he doesn't speak, you always know what he's feeling. It's a small triumph on the part of the developers that such a small character develops so much personality with seemingly little effort. You may or may not grow attached to him, and he may or may not have much of an impact on the game depending on your perspective of things, but he's a fun little guy that's nice to have around.
There are a few cutscenes that occur during the game, mostly dynamic still shots with a small number of moving or shifting bits to give the impression of action. If there's any voice over, it's provided by Professor Quadwrangle, so it's fun to listen to at the very least. Since the story is so light, there aren't very many, but they look gorgeous and provide a welcome, albeit brief, respite from the strenuous puzzle solving.
Graphics & Atmosphere Overview
This is a beautiful game. There's simply no other way to put it. From the furs in IKE's soft coat to the various incarnations of objects within the different dimensions, everything looks absolutely gorgeous. Eventually, the mansion suffers from recycled hallways, but with so many interesting things to look at, we didn't mind...too much.
If Portal emphasized utilitarian sterility and dystopian decay, Quantum Conundrum leans—by which we mean knocks over and sits on—scientific wonder and lush decadence. In the normal dimension, the mansion looks like a richly painted cartoon, with bright colors and exaggerated angles everywhere. It's bound by a certain sense of realism, though, which is completely thrown out the window to create the different dimensions. Fluffy dimension makes the player see the world in a light pink haze, and everything turns into a plush version of its normal self. Heavy dimension pulls on steam punk elements, with lots of hard angles and dark metals. Slow dimension looks like an old-timey movie, complete with grainy visuals and a washed out, sepia tone palette. Reverse dimension is the only one that doesn't add a lot to things visually, but then it's based more on altering the laws of physics rather than changing the physical structure of things. In a wonderful touch, all the pictures in the mansion alter to suit whatever dimension you happen to be in. A picture of the professor's cat may get a bushy coat in the Fluffy dimension, while the fish next to it will start to rise out of its bowl in the Reverse dimension. Seeing all the different variations is an entertaining element that never gets old, and gives players the desire to stop now and then to see how the world around them will change depending on which dimension they happen to be in. The only downside to this is the repetition of the in-between segments. Short hallways during which you'll get to hear from your uncle begin to look very repetitive after a while, so much so that your uncle even makes several comments about all the hallways in his house look the same. These rooms essentially serve as active loading screens, so you don't ever have to stop and wait, but if you're flying through puzzles at a good clip, their lack of variation becomes that much more obvious.
The graphics are as smooth as melting butter, with furniture patterns, book titles, and everything else looking as detailed and crisp as befits the overall cartoon-like style. Everything looks fully-realized, without any hiccups or visual snags from start to finish. The different dimensions are all equally stunning, and the different visual filters successfully altered the atmosphere without obstructing or obscuring the player's ability to see around them. Quantum Conundrum, if nothing else, is a visual triumph.
After all that gushing about visuals and graphics, it may seem a bit anticlimactic to be so terse about the game's score. It just wasn't all that important, though. Music interspersed throughout the game added some occasional variation for the ear, but when you're so focused on the puzzles, the background noise isn't really going to draw that much attention. For what it's worth, we think that's a good thing: the music, at best, livened up the proceedings and, at its worst, managed to not distract us from the more important elements of the game.
The satisfying whump made by shifting dimensions, the whir of fans, the clank of heavy safes as they hit the ground: everything sounded spot on. Sound effects were always appropriate to the objects that happened to make the noise, and there were enough examples of fancy technology (like the pneumatic doors and cloning machines) to give the mansion a decidedly cutting-edge atmosphere. From the realistic to the futuristic, everything in the game sounded great.
It doesn't take a lot for a game to work. Sometimes a single conceit can help catapult a game to the levels cult status as a result of its ingenuity or originality. That was the case with Valve's Portal and its physics-bending gun, and Quantum Conundrum attempts to replicate that success. There's a lot of visual and mechanical overlap between the two games—something that makes sense given that Kim Swift was a prominent designer on both titles—and that's definitely a good thing. Puzzle elements that utilize the interesting conceit of dimension hopping and a clever script delivered by an omnipresent guide make for an entertaining journey that's enhanced by beautiful visuals. Lackluster platforming and a story that is devoid of any sense of urgency hold this title back, though, preventing it from reaching the same heights is its spiritual predecessor. We'd say it's definitely worth a play, especially if you love puzzle games, or if you want an interesting experience and liked the gameplay of Portal. If you only had lukewarm opinions about Valve's older hit, you may want to give Quantum Conundrum a pass; it does everything Portal already did, but in many cases it couldn't live up to the standard that has already been set.