It would be nearly impossible to speak about Quantum Conundrum without bringing up Portal. Aside from a sharing a lead designer, both games draw from the same core ideas: first-person platforming puzzles bound together by a physics-defying device, a quirky atmosphere, and a persistent narrator who’ll never find work as a motivational speaker. Solving the dimension-twisting problems of Quantum Conundrum was a lot of fun – in spite of how familiar many parts felt – but may have ascended from “great game” to “truly special”, had it only found the means to expand just a little bit farther from its spiritual predecessor.
That being said, to call the game “a Portal clone” would be a disservice. Yes, you play as a scientific nobody forced to use a sciencey gadgetto solve various puzzles, but that’s where the similarity in mechanics ends. In Quantum Conundrum, you’re armed with something called the Interdimensional Shift Device (or IDS Device for short), a glove that gives you control over the world around you and, more specifically, the physical laws that govern it. This is done by pressing buttons on its surface to shift dimensions, a technique that adjusts the properties of everything around you in different and, often strange, new ways.
At first, you’re hit with two easy-to-understand tweaks: the so-called Fluffy Dimension, and the less-cutely-named Heavy Dimension. Fluffy makes everything in the room weigh less, while the Heavy Dimension – you guessed it – packs on the pounds. Like most well-designed puzzle games, Quantum Conundrum focuses on teaching you core concepts, then adding to what you’ve mastered to raise the complexity. So, what may begin as “make this safe lighter so you can carry it” soon becomes “make this safe lighter to carry it to a pressure switch, then heavier in order to activate it” and so forth. Introducing more dimensions while gradually introducing new ways for them to interact maintains the rewarding feeling of solving a room, while curbing the frustration of what can, at first, seem an unsolvable puzzle.
The majority of these puzzles lie at the center of a larger objective: moving your character from A to B. Because of this, platforming sections (sometimes within the puzzles, and sometimes between them) are equally important to the experience. On the whole, these segments are somewhat more trying, as jumping across a field of various objects can be tricky from the first-person vantage. Balancing that annoyance is a fantastic checkpoint system that auto-saves your progress per individual hurdle rather than per total section. Generally speaking, navigating a series of speedy conveyor belts or jumping across a waterfall of slow-motion safes is just as rewarding an experience as figuring out how to rewire a door or deciding which object to place on what switch.
Like any modern puzzle game, however, Quantum Conundrum‘s experience is not defined solely by its puzzles; the atmosphere that binds them is equally important. In this arena, the game doesn’t fail so much as disappoints. Many of the environments (as well as the comedic portraits of monocled cats, punnily-named books, and the bizarre décor that define them) are constantly repeated throughout the mansion, making it harder to care about moving forward to new sections, while simultaneously driving its own jokes into the ground. It’s a shame, too, since there are some really interesting, if simple, ideas supporting the story.
The tale goes something like this: A woman, worried that her science-obsessed brother is becoming lonely in his ginormous mansion, sends her twelve-year-old son on annual visits to visit his uncle. The uncle, one Professor Fitz Quadrangle, grumbles about this, yet never fails to find something exciting worth showing his young nephew upon the kid’s arrival. One day, an experiment backfires, and our short protagonist (played by you) must work his way through his uncle’s wacky mansion in the hopes of fixing what went wrong, and bringing Quadrangle back from the strange alternate dimension he seems to be trapped in.
The relationship between you and your uncle could have provided a unique dynamic worth exploring in depth, but it is soon reduced to what’s generally a flat GlaDOS/Chell-type repartee, in which Quadrangle haplessly berates you for what’s generally no good reason at all. The effect is worthy of only a few chuckles but, despite its familiarity, still manages to keep things interesting while you’re walking between the long, familiar corridors connecting the puzzle rooms. Other moments that highlight the relationship, such as when your Uncle seems to genuinely care about your safety by suggesting when to jump or calling for you to “Look out!” for a falling safe were infinitely more appealing, yet far less frequent.
That’s not to say the game is without humor, though. Long series of strange portraits such as a tiny man on safari holding a tiger by the leash, or an overlong, genetically-altered dachshund split across six paintings provide more than a few welcome smiles (at least the first time you see them) between the harder sections, as do the abundant, hysterically depressing notes nestled into each game over screen. Each time you die, you’re reminded that you’ll never learn to ride a bike, or be stood up by a prom date. The jokes are a happy complement to what may have otherwise been a frustrating string of back-to-back failures.
Quantum Conundrum is a game that got a lot of things right, excelling in design, and finding that golden balance between what’s challenging and what’s frustrating. And while its cartoonish atmosphere can be hit-or-miss, it still remains interesting enough to keep you searching through the mansion for your uncle.
Bottom Line: Quantum Conundrum nails the puzzles, and does okay with the atmosphere, leaving a well-crafted “Diet Portal“-style adventure that succeeds when it matters.
Recommendation: If the game only caught your eye for its humor and style, you may find yourself disappointed. Otherwise, Quantum Conundrum is an easy pick for puzzle adventure fans.[rating=4]
Game: Quantum Conundrum
Developer: Airtight Games
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: GameStop(US)