A great deal of a game’s reception comes from its pedigree. If a game is bad, it’s all the more disappointing if it’s come from a well-respected developer, whereas a good game from a relative unknown is a very nice surprise. Quantum Conundrum is a game from Kim Swift, who you might know as the creator of Portal, and as such it would be very easy to judge it by impossibly high standards.
Fortunately though, Quantum Conundrum still comes out with a big fat tick. It’s fun, and not in an empty, forgettable way. It’s clever, both mechanically and in its visual design and writing. It makes you think. As a game following on from the runaway success from Portal, it could so easily have disappointed, but Kim Swift’s curriculum vitae got just a healthy boost.
Following a smoothly animated opening cutscene in which our pint-sized protagonist is sent to visit the mansion of his inventor uncle Professor Quadwrangle, he’s dropped into a situation far out of his control. Quadwrangle has become trapped in a pocket dimension of his own making, and the ten-year-old (or is it twelve?) player must travel through three major areas of the house in order to restore power, lift the house’s lockdown and rescue his quirky relative.
However, he’s not alone. He’s aided by a special glove, which grants the power to switch between several dimensions at will, provided the correct power core is available in the current room. These range from Fluffy and Heavy, which alter the weight of objects (no prizes for guessing which does which), allowing you to push switches with cardboard boxes or fling safes around with ease, to Slow and Reverse gravity dimensions, which with the right timing are primarily used to surf around on flying furniture or sprint through laser fields. Quadwrangle, like GLaDOS, is not one for Health and Safety.
The main character, being the one generating the dimensional fields, is immune to their effects. This means that during slow-mode you can sprint around like the Flash, but also that reverse gravity mode won’t let you fly around mid-air without something to ride on.
This emphasis on physics offers a huge number of puzzle possibilities, which are indeed explored very nicely, but also comes with the peril of the physics engine just sometimes not working as precisely as a puzzle game demands. In Portal, though the main mechanic played with physics, the puzzles more usually depended on using logic and forward thinking than exact timing or accuracy. The game actually found ways to help you with this – portals would shift to fit nicely onto a platform if your shot was off, and the springboard Aerial Faith Plates would gently correct your course if it looked like you were about to hurtle to your doom.
Quantum Conundrum, by comparison, simply has far too many moments that depend on a block bouncing the right way or launching the right height, and there will undoubtedly be umpteen occasions (particularly towards the end game) in which you find yourself plunging into the lethal Science Juice after pressing the slow button a quarter of a second too late.
One simply has to hope that the rest of the game is interesting enough to warrant continuing past the frustrating sections, and in this reviewer’s opinion it certainly is. Of particular note are the visuals, which differ drastically from Portal’s surgically clean chambers and bright lighting, instead offering a brightly coloured, cartoon proportioned factory setting to explore. Interestingly, changing dimensions not only changes the physical properties of objects, but also the graphical style of the world. For instance, Fluffy dimension makes everything light-blue and cloth-like, while Heavy paints everything red and textures objects like they’re constructed from riveted metal. It’s not particularly important to gameplay, but it’s a nice touch and helps avoid confusion by reminding players which dimension they’re currently in.
The soundtrack is fairly standard, enlivened only by the rather good song at the end. It’s clear where its inspiration comes from though, and try as it might, it’s just not as good as Still Alive. The work voice from John De Lancie, better known as Q from Star Trek, underpins the whole experience through the quirky character of Fitz Quadwrangle, who provides narration on your character’s exploits over the manor’s intercom. The narration can actually take quite an interesting turn – look at paintings scattered around the house and Fitz will give you some background information about his exploits and those of his family. It’s an excellent way of giving context and understanding to the world you find yourself in and also allows for the injection of humour into the situation, such as through the character of Ike – a strange trans-dimensional being who likes to help out by providing dimension cores and popping into existence just in time to help our hero.
There are indeed times you’ll need help, because as with any puzzle game, you’ll occasionally have no idea how to proceed, which can be a problem as the game offers no sort of hint system. It’s understandable that a developer would want a game to be challenging, and I apologise for the number of comparisons to Portal, but in that game it was usually fairly clear about the objective.
A typical Quantum Conundrum puzzle has you make use of several dimensions (a particularly common one is using Fluffy dimension to fling a safe across a gap, then quickly switching to Slow dimension to jump on it whilst in midair). This is where the control scheme particularly shines, at least on the consoles. Flipping between dimensions is done using the four shoulder buttons, and it quickly becomes intuitive to swap several times in just a few seconds (something you’ll be doing often, particularly once the later levels see you using all four dimensions in extended puzzle/platformer sequences).
Less fantastic is the decision to use precision platforming in a first-person game using realistic physics. First-person platforming has only been done well in one recent game (Mirror’s Edge) and the game could have easily been done in third-person, giving the player a much easier time planning jump angles and positions.
As a complete package, Quantum Conundrum is an excellent purchase. It has charm and humour, but of a different kind to Portal, so one shouldn’t go into it expecting exactly the same sort of game, but it remains a very polished game with creative level design, wonderful graphics and interesting mechanics. It can be frustrating at times, but rather than putting you off it just encourages you to push onwards. If you don’t have Quantum Conundrum yet, get it. 9.5/10.