Quantum Conundrum for XBLA, PSN and Steam
Quantum Conundrum is the new game from Kim Swift, the creative genius behind Portal. It bears many similarities to her opus; it’s a first person, physics based puzzle game. Swift wasn’t involved in Portal 2, leaving her to create this new game with new game play mechanics. I’m sure that Swift doesn’t appreciate that almost every review for this game compares it to Portal, but that’s just what happens when you create one of the most innovative and influential games ever made. So, does this game live up to is spiritual predecessor, or should Swift have stuck with Valve?
Whilst the gameplay of Portal was utterly sublime, it is arguably just as respected for its witty and sinister story and atmosphere, bolstered by exemplary voice acting and sharp humour. Sadly, these elements do not translate into Quantum Conundrum, although not for lack of trying. In Quantum Conundrum you are a young boy sent by his mother to visit his uncle, the mad scientist Professor Quadrangle. Upon arriving, some kind of weird science-y stuff happens and the good Professor becomes trapped in a small pocket dimension with no memory of how he got there, and it is up to his young nephew to rescue him. Our young hero uses this game’s equivalent of the Portal gun, the IDS, a glove which allows the player to switch between four different ‘dimensions’ which cause objects to have different properties. The attempts at comedy tend to fall fairly flat, whilst not being actively annoying. Quadrangles narration never matches that of GLADOS, tending more towards somewhat self consciously ‘quirky’ statements, and without the air of subtle menace which made Portal so special. The story certainly isn’t bad, just easy to ignore, which is what I suspect the vast majority of players shall be doing.
Luckily however, the game play of Quantum Conundrum is easily enough to make up for its forgettable narrative. The player is given access to each dimension gradually throughout the game, creating a nicely smooth learning curve. The player character is unaffected by these dimensional changes, so the player handles the same in every dimension. The first dimension the player is given access to is the ‘light dimension’, where everything is fluffy and, well…light! Safes which would normally be too heavy to move can now be picked up and thrown to pressure switches etc. The next dimension the player is given is, unsurprisingly, the ‘heavy dimension’, which does the exact opposite. The third is a dimension in which time slows down to a crawl, allowing precision jumping between objects normally moving too fast to traverse. The fourth and final dimension flips the gravity in the room, making all objects float to the ceiling. The rapid manipulation of these dimensions can lead to some truly complex and ingenious puzzle designs, although there are certain tricks which will be used over and over again. There has been a large amount of criticism of the amount of that much maligned gameplay mechanic, first person platforming, in this game, but I’m not sure if that is entirely fair. Although it is easy to miss the odd jump, the checkpoints are so regular and the load times so quick that it can be difficult to get too frustrated. The jumping around can lead to some pretty epic moments as the player zips around the room, reacting quickly to whatever object happens to block your path. Many players will not be satisfied with this game for one simple reason however; it is a rather easy, and although solving the puzzles does release that little rush of endorphins so vital to the genre, there are few which I can say left me truly stumped. Throughout the game I was waiting for a level of complexity which simply never appeared, it just..ends. Perhaps the clearly forecasted sequel will bring on the complex puzzles not quite featured here. This is another of the problems with this game; whilst Portal, despite its short length and position as part of The Orange Box, felt like a complete game in of itself, even if it didn’t have the length or budget of its sequel, the same cannot be said for Quantum Conundrum. Despite these issues however, the game is still damn fun to play.
The visuals are sadly lacklustre throughout. The mansion which the player explores is singularly uniform and drab, and not in a cool stylistic way like the Aperture Science complex of Portal. Between each puzzle chamber the player commutes through a series of insultingly similar rooms, with the very low number of visual assets repeating over and over again. It’s a rather surprising laziness, but it doesn’t really take away from the core gameplay. Star Trek’s Jon de Lancie’s performance as Professor Quadrangle can’t really be faulted; the uninteresting narration stems from unimaginative writing rather than poor voice acting. Ike, a cute little critter who pops up every so often, is really the only dynamic creation in the entire game, with his clumsy slapstick antics raising a smile in a way that none of the narration succeeds to. I suspect that with a proper, Valve sized, budget, Swift could have done great things with this setting, but the opportunity is sadly squandered.
Quantum Conundrum is a lot of fun, and worth a play. The fun of the basic gameplay overwhelms the disappointing setting and narrative. Swift has cemented her position as one of the most interesting developers in gaming, and I thoroughly look forward to her next product, whether a sequel to Quantum Conundrum or something entirely new.