Quantum Conundrum is a game I’ve sort of been thinking about buying. I loved Portal, obviously, and I like games that make my dumb arse feel like a genius. So I welcomed this Reader Review from Stu Roberts.
Thanks Stu — take it away!
Since the 2007 release of Valve’s all-round stroke of genius Portal, it’s become the benchmark by which all other puzzle / platformers have been judged. And, given the fact that it’s an absolute high-point of the last ten or so years of gaming, that’s no surprise. So when another first-person, physics-based puzzler comes along – one with a similar structure, focus, setting, and sardonic sense of humour – it’s hard not to make comparisons. The fact that Quantum Conundrum is largely the brainchild of Kim Swift, Portal’s lead designer, may lead some gamers to assume there’s no reason to play Quantum because there’s no way it could be “as good”. So the question remains – should you bother? Does Quantum do enough to differentiate itself? Is the comparison really justified in the first place? Let’s have a look.
Quantum Conundrum has you playing the nephew of Professor Fitz Quadwrangle, a brilliant yet reckless inventor who has, over the years, grudgingly allowed our silent and nameless protagonist to visit during the holidays and play around with his inventions. His latest is the Inter-Dimensional Shift device, a glove which allows the wielder to jump between the fluffy, heavy, slow-time, and anti-gravity dimensions at will. Unfortunately, at some stage during experimentation, Professor Quadwrangle traps himself in an unknown dimension and, on the morning you arrive for an unannounced visit, he tasks you with rescuing him. Basically, the different dimensions affect the properties of objects, and this dimension-shifting gameplay forms the basis for the many puzzles and challenges you’ll encounter as you make your way through Quadwrangle’s amusingly impractical mansion.
The melding of gameplay and puzzle design: The key to a good puzzle game is to have strong core gameplay elements, and Quantum’s dimensions mechanic makes for some unique and brain-twisting challenges. Being able to switch dimensions on the fly gives the puzzles a real-time immediacy to them; they require a hands-on, experimental approach which challenges your co-ordination, memory, timing, and dexterity in different combinations (and often at the same time).
The same base objects recur throughout the game, such as the cardboard box, the safe, and the couch. In the neutral dimension, your ability to interact with them is essentially limited by how heavy they are. Cardboard boxes you can lift, but they’re not heavy enough to trigger pressure switches. Flip to the “heavy” dimension, and they suddenly become useful. Safes are too heavy to pick up, but can be used to break glass, or be stacked atop one another to make stairs. Need to move them first, though? Flip to the “fluffy” dimension, and they become pillows. Anti-gravity transforms objects into elevators, while slowing down time turns them into platforms. When you mix the give-and-take nature of the objects’ physicality with puzzle elements such as fans, laser tripwires and deadly ray guns, you’re constantly forced to consider how the objects’ physics will be affected by the dimensional shifts.
Given that you can only have one dimension active at any one moment, the combination of physics, environment, and design results in a diverse and satisfying series of puzzles. Like Portal, you’ll find yourself idly experimenting in each of the new areas, and because the objects spawned by the charming metal smiley faces limitlessly replenish, the tendency to tinker goes unpunished. You won’t ever be forced to return to a checkpoint, because a level reset is never more than a button-push away. Many levels require you to track down batteries to power the IDS’ individual functions, or even to swap out which functions you have active, leading to a clever layering of puzzles upon puzzles within areas. Unfortunately, the game loses its focus on pure puzzle-solving later in the game, but more on that later.
The presentation: Powered by the Unreal 3 engine, Quantum Conundrum looks serviceable, but is far from gorgeous. Assets are re-used, textures aren’t particularly detailed, there’s screen-tearing, the lighting’s simple, and the corridors and stairs linking each room are repetitive. However, the game’s aesthetic is somehow appropriate – the bright, vibrant colours and quirky approach to the design of assets and architecture keeps the games’ atmosphere delightfully off-kilter. Different filters are applied when the various dimensions are activated, and flicking between them is handled crisply and quickly. The “fluffy” dimension is light and whimsical, while the “heavy” is hard, well-worn, and industrial.
And so Quantum’s visuals add up to more of the sum of their parts – what they lack in detail, they make up in charm, character, and good-natured goofiness. Sound design is minimalistic yet ambient, and the cheery soundtrack complements the game’s tone well. The writing is quick and snappy, and Professor Quadwrangle’s deprecating attitude towards his nephew’s triumphs and failures adds a dash of humour to the proceedings. Each death screen is accompanied by a selection from a huge list of Things You’ll Never Experience, such as “Growing old enough to realize you’re not special”, “Finding yourself”, and “Not failing”. And make sure you flip between dimensions in front of every painting you come across. Some of them are gems.
I’m not completely sold on…
The controls: Unfortunately, Quantum’s biggest failure is in the controls. While your movement is perfectly fine, and shifting dimensions is easy, the jump mechanics are hit and miss. Later in the game the individual challenges shift from physics-based puzzles to precision platforming, resulting in some frustrating sequences where you’re not solving puzzles – you’re freezing time, hitting ‘jump’, and hoping for the best. Judging distances can be particularly annoying, especially when there’s a significant change in elevation. As far as I’m concerned, the bar for first-person platforming was set with the Metroid Prime series; Quantum’s rigid perspective and tendency to introduce forward momentum when you step off ledges will lead to more than a few unintentional deaths.
The physics: While they work very well most of the time, a game like this requires an utterly dependable and predictable physics engine, and unfortunately, Quantum’s makes the occasional misstep. The “throw” action is in heavy use for most of the game, and when you have to be precise, it doesn’t always behave the way you expect it to. Some of the objects feel a little floaty, and stacking boxes can become a real chore, especially when there’s a time limit imposed upon you. Having said that, though, generally the physics work well; and however annoying individual sections can be, they’re mostly offset by the multitude of times the engine works fluidly. When you don’t pay attention to the engine it’s because it’s working well; and, most of the time, it just runs seamlessly in the background and behaves as expected.
…Not very much, to be honest. There are moments of frustration, repetition, annoyance, and difficulty, but they’re far outweighed by the clever level design and novel approach to interactive puzzling. Some of the levels fall flat, some are too easy, some require nothing but imprecise platforming, and one has a maddeningly obscure solution, but for every annoyance, there’s a counter-balancing moment of brilliance. I guess if I had to choose something to hate, I’d have to say “the ending” – but not for anything to do with the story. It’s because the game ended abruptly, and I wanted to keep playing.
Quantum Conundrum is not as good as Portal. But then again, not very much is. While its premise, structure, and overall “feel” takes obvious cues from Valve’s surprise hit (and gameplay elements from many other sources, including Blinx the Timesweeper and even Half-Life), its gameplay, puzzle design and tone make this a unique, appealing, and fun way to spend six or eight hours. When you throw in its low price, leaderboards, online challenges, collectibles, and the near-inevitability of DLC down the track, Quantum Conundrum is well worth your money and comes highly recommended.