Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developers: Airtight Games
Publishers: Square Enix
I had rather hoped that I wouldn't have to bring up Portal. The knowledge that Kim Swift worked on Narbacular Drop, and then went on to help create Portal at Valve is really unnecessary information at this point. But I needn't have worried about that changing my perspective of Swift's latest game - the echoes of Valve's finest are written large across Quantum Conundrum.
"Is this done by the people that made Portal," my sister asks me one evening, glancing up from her book momentarily.
"One of the co-creators, yes." I tell her. "What made you say that?"
"Just the way that crate flew through the air off of that pad. Those laser emitters look awfully familiar." This from a woman who has never played Portal herself...though she has listened to "Still Alive" on numerous occasions.
GLaDOS and co., it would seem, are inescapable.
But then again, Swift and her team invite comparisons.At its core, Quantum Conundrum ferries you from puzzle room to puzzle room, inviting you to manipulate the world around you through distorted physics, chucking boxes onto hard to reach switches, taking care to dodge laser beams and deadly drops. This is all done in the first-person, too, providing ample opportunity for some tricky platforming. There's even a humorous narrator in there as well, punctuating your puzzling journey with quips and criticisms.
There are differences, of course, Quantum Conundrum begins with you - a twelve year old - being dropped off at your uncle's house. Only it's not a house, it's a mansion. And your uncle happens to be famed inventor and bonkers eccentric Professor Fitz Quadwrangle. You arrive to find that your dear uncle has been bending the frabric of time and space, and has accidentally gotten himself stuck in some sort of non-space - a neutral pocket dimension from which he cannot get out. You are quickly charged with getting the mansion's three power generators back online, which involves delving into the labyrinthine corridors of the house, navigating some increasingly fiendish puzzle rooms, and exploring various wings of the building.
Your handy tool for nipping through the traps and pitfalls that come thick and fast in this game comes in the form of the IDS, or Interdimension Shift Device - a glove that allows the player to switch between five different dimensions. As well as your own native, neutral dimension, there's the Fluffy dimension, which makes everything soft and light; the Heavy dimension, which makes everything ten times heavier, and also impervious to laser blasts; there's a dimension where you can make time go incredibly slowly, giving you the ability to play catch with yourself; and there's also a dimension that inverts the gravity, causing loose objects to fly upwards. Typically, these different IDS flavours require a specific battery, and often the route to obtaining these batteries is a puzzle in itself.
The puzzle rooms themselves bear some strong resemblences to Swift's earlier work. Between the pressure pads, weighted switches, lasers, and safes (stepping in for companion cubes), taking advantage of airborne physics, and avoiding dubious pools of goo, there's plenty that might seem familiar. But the dimensional mechanics do manage to banish memories of Portal...in a fashion.
An early level might see you hit a switch on the wall to release a safe from a DOLLI (a wall mounted robot head that looks a bit like a drunk Big Daddy and vomits objects), but you won't be able to lift it up...until you flip everything into the Fluffy dimension, that is. Now objects can be lifted and carried, and deposited in the right place, although you'll have to dimension jump again to restore the safe's natural weight. Another level might see you flinging a sofa across a room beset by lasers (using Fluffy to pick it up), slowing down the sofa's mid-air transit with a cheeky dimension jump, dashing across to temporarily interrupt the lasers' power to avoid obliterating the sofa, and then using said sofa to ascend to higher levels.
There are plenty of "Eureka" moments to be had within Quantum Conundrum, and it's really not long before the game starts taxing the brain with cleverly designed, intricate levels that make good use of the vertical as well as the horizontal. Sadly, though, for all of the inventive creativity on show, too many of the puzzles depend upon precise platform jumping, which can be a little frustrating in the first person. The emphasis on platforming is so heavy, in fact, that rooms can occasionally devolve into repetitive trial and error cycles, when the joy of solving the initial puzzle has long since vanished. If first person platforming isn't your cup of tea, then Quantum Conundrum may make you want to gouge your eyes out with a teaspoon at times.
John De Lancie's narration, or rather the character of Fitzwrangle himself, is another little irksome component to the game. Though De Lancie himself works very well indeed with the material he has (you've got to love a bit of Q), Fitzwrangle is a poor substitute for GLaDOS. At least the latter's dual-personality made sense, given the context; the good professor's temper flips back and forth, which doesn't make too much sense considering that you're his only lifeline. Too often the humorous contrivances feel forced, and the pithy put-downs more incongruous than particularly cutting. With no real sense of connection to this supposed uncle, you end up being half inclined to let him rot in non-space.
Every so often Quantum Conundrum delivers exactly the experience you'd expect. Every so often, the solution to a puzzle room reveals itself after multiple approaches and the sense of satisfaction soars. Every so often execution and realisation come together in perfect harmony, particularly when you have full mastery of all four dimensions - using Fluffy to hurl furniture, quickly slowing down time so you can climb aboard, flipping the gravity to ascend to higher planes, before slamming on Heavy to return to solid ground. When Quantum Conundrum has the bravery to put its faith in its fantastic puzzle elements, its a true breath of fresh air.
But all too often it falls short, and we cannot help but be reminded of that other quirky, first-person platformer. Not that Portal was innocent of occasionally testing one's reflexes with some well-timed jumps and object catches, but the simplicity of physical movement in that game was a joy in which to revel. The fact that you, the player, are left unaffected by these dimensions makes the platforming all the more galling, and there's just not enough in the world around you to invite playing about with the mechanics. Perhaps if the locale had been shifted to a more organic environment, perhaps if the lasers didn't remind us quite so much of Valve's beam emitters, perhaps if we weren't imagining Ellen McLain ridiculing our attempts at platforming, perhaps if Airtight hadn't delivered a musical finale, which unfortunately falls pretty flat.
Quantum Conundrum is not a bad game at all. In fact it's brilliantly inventive in places, but it just tries to do too much, and strives to appeal to two different camps. Half of the game represents puzzling purity - a celebration of mischievous physics, cheeky manipulation, and cerebral construction. But the rest is either a case of clunky platforming, or a pale reflection of a game we've seen before.
That said, a game even half as good as Portal is worth a look if you're a puzzle fan.
- Dimension shifting mechanics work well
- Some superbly designed puzzle rooms
- The Eureka moments you do get are supremely satisfying
- Platforming elements can be frustrating
- Especially seeing as how they constitute half of the game
- For better or worse, Portal's in QC's DNA and invites comparison
The Short Version: Quantum Conundrum is a solid game in its own right. For all of its platforming follies, there are elements of puzzling genius. For each poor point of comparison with Portal, there are enough unique touches that strive to create an identity all its own. It's a game full of ideas that stumbles and falls in places, but ultimately one that anyone with a hint of interest in the first-person puzzling genre would do well to check out.