Game: Quantum Conundrum
Developer: Airtight Games
Publisher: Square Enix
For a puzzle game, Portal was such a huge success that its influence is felt in some way over most of the genre’s subsequent releases. Because of this it can be easy to just lazily compare all puzzle games to Portal, but it’s especially hard to avoid doing so in the case of Quantum Conundrum. Partly this is because it was designed by Kim Swift, one of the creators of Portal (and of Narbacular Drop, the student project which led to Portal) who left Valve to join Airtight Games in order to work on games such as this one. It’s also because the overall structure of the game echoes that of Portal more than a little.
Quantum Conundrum casts you as a 12 year old boy visiting the house of his mad scientist uncle, Professor Quadwrangle. It seems you weren’t expected, but it’s lucky you arrive since an experiment quickly goes wrong and the Prof ends up trapped in another dimension, though somehow he seems to be able to watch your progress through the house and make sarcastic comments on it. He’s voiced by John de Lancie, so I expect the whole thing is just another one of Q’s games. Anyway, you end up trekking through the ridiculously large house solving puzzles to reach three different generators in order to activate them.
Puzzles are solved by utilising four other dimensions which are gradually revealed one by one throughout the game. (I say dimensions because that’s what the game calls them. They’re actually more like parallel worlds. Exactly how that equates to the term dimension in these sorts of stories I’ve never quite understood. Length, width, height, time and objects being a bit heavier than they were before doesn’t really work. But I digress. As usual.) On most levels you can switch between these at will, though when you’re getting started they’re controlled automatically for you to demonstrate how they work. A bit like a certain other puzzle game I can think of. Each of the other “dimensions” has the same objects in the same places, but the physical laws and/or properties of objects are different. The dimensions are: the “Fluffy” dimension where everything gets covered in lint; the “Heavy” dimension which is populated by Team Fortress 2 characters; the “Slow” dimension where time is slowed down by forcing you to work at my place of employment; and the “Reverse Gravity” dimension which… reverses gravity. Some of those don’t seem quite right, let’s give that another go.
Alternating between these dimensions allows you to manipulate the environment to achieve your goal. Each section of the game introduces a new dimension, but you don’t always have access to all of these immediately for each puzzle. In each area there is a receptacle with space for four batteries. Placing the battery for the appropriate dimension into the hole is required before you can switch to it. Usually you’ll have one or two batteries already in place and the others will be hidden so that you have to use the dimensions you have available to gain access to the others.
Obviously for a game with physical puzzles like this there needs to be a physics engine, and this means puzzles can utilise the dimensions in more complex ways. Objects keep their previous momentum even when you’ve switched from one dimension to another. For example, if a box is on its way to the ceiling with reverse gravity, if you switch out of it the box will carry on rising for a moment before gravity pulls it back down and it starts falling again. This sort of thing is the key to solving many of the puzzles. The problem is, the physics engine just isn’t very good. For puzzles like this to work, everything has to behave in a predictable way. In Quantum Conundrum you’ll often be expected to stack safes to reach somewhere, and getting them to stay where you want them is often more of a challenge than the actual puzzle. Other times you might need to get things to fall in a certain place, yet dropping the same item from the same location often leads to wildly varying results. For a game relying on physics, this can be a serious issue. The game may have the designer from Portal on board, but what it lacks is Valve’s amazing standard of quality control. I guess QC’s QC just isn’t up to scratch. For every puzzle that is well crafted and fun to solve, and there are quite a few, there is another puzzles where it’s obvious what you need to do almost immediately but an exercise in frustration actually carrying it out. Too often it can involve setting up items in a certain way, to create a path for jumping across for instance. One slip while crossing can cause you to plummet to your death or drop you down to a lower part of the level, causing you to have to set up the jump all over again. This platform game style jumping can be particularly annoying thanks to the engine. Quantum Conundrum utilises the Unreal Engine 3, which is a perfectly good engine except that they’ve left it in first person perspective which isn’t ideal for precision jumping. To make matters worse, the player casts no shadow whatsoever, making judging the longer jumps even more awkward. Either you’re playing as a 12 year old vampire or the game wasn’t fully thought through. Hard to say which.
Satisfying the trend for having collectables in games, Quantum Conundrum features little robots known as Awkward Noise Generators scattered around the levels. There are usually in out of the way places and you’ll need to explore to find them, adding an extra challenge for those who wish to complete the collection. There is also a blueprint in each of the sections of the house, each of which activates a different dimension in a room just off the central hub area. Called the R & D lab, it seems like it’s an extra set of puzzles, until you realise there’s no goal to the room at all, so it’s all a bit of a waste of time. There’s plenty of objects to use there, but nothing to do with them. There is the final one of the robot collectibles and that appears to be it, and it only involves a couple of dimensions and a small part of the room to get that. Additional features for when the game is finished are nice but there needs to be some point to them. If you miss any collectibles during the game, you can at least use a terminal to go back to replay a level to find what you’ve missed, and it does highlight exactly which rooms you’ve missed things in, which is useful.
The style of the game is cartoonish and is simple and clear as is appropriate for a puzzle game. After a while though it starts to get repetitive, thanks to rooms being separated by sometimes lengthy corridors that all look the same. You continually pass bookshelves and tables with piles of books on them, each with science-sounding spoof titles such as Jurassic Quark and The Man in the FE60 Mask, but you quickly find these same books also repeat again and again. It’s not as big an issue in a game of this sort as it could be in other genres but it’s still noticeable, especially as this sort of layout doesn’t make as much sense in Quantum Conundrum’s environment as it does in the more formal test chamber used in some other puzzle games. At one point, the voiceover announces: “The corridors are all starting to look the same to me.” If you’re making a game and there’s a flaw in it that you’re aware of, perhaps it would be better to fix it rather than to attempt a joke that just draws everyone’s attention to it. Speaking of which, John de Lancie’s Q channelling performance is the only voice acting in the game. This makes the sound the one area in which the game works very well, with sound effects and music matching the tone well and an entertaining voice over, even if the humour is occasionally a bit flat. It does keep things from getting too dull as you traipse through the corridors. Occasionally it can get a little patronising when he instantly gives hints for puzzles than you may have preferred to try solving entirely on your own, but it’s never anything too revealing. It sometimes feels like the game isn’t sure whether it wants to be a kid’s game or not. More irritating is when he starts giving hints to puzzles that you’ve already worked out but are still wrestling with the aforementioned awkward physics. More wit is shown on the occasions when you do die, as the death screen shows a message about things you’ll never experience due to being dead. These range from the rather sad “feeling the crisp air of a new spring day” to the funny “watching your favourite childhood TV shows getting turned into horrible movies” and the downright bizarre “the zombie apocalypse (maybe this is for the best.)”
In story terms, I’ve already said pretty much everything you need to know about it. You’re going through the house trying to activate generators to rescue your uncle from a parallel universe. That’s all there really is to it, and Quantum Conundrum still messes the ending up, by basically not having one. You get to the end, something happens that leaves everything in an even bigger mess, and the game blatantly sets itself up for a sequel while resolving nothing. If you’re not going to tell a complete story, then at least warn us by sticking a number 1 in the title or calling it Episode 1 or something. It’s irritating to get all the way to the end only to find that everything is left unfinished for a sequel that may or may not ever get made.
If the review has sounded mostly negative, don’t come away with the impression that the game is completely worthless. It’s not a bad game, and in many ways it’s quite good, but it never goes beyond that into greatness. If you want another physics puzzler to tide you over while waiting for the next Valve masterpiece then you could do far worse than this. While the problems I’ve spoken about do exist, there are some clever puzzles amongst the levels and when everything comes together perfectly you’ll be switching between dimensions quickly and effortlessly to achieve your goals. For an example of what the game can be like, here’s a video (obviously a spoiler for one of the game’s puzzles):
The game isn’t extremely long, lasting around 8 hours, but for once the game was priced accordingly at under £10 even when brand new, which makes it hard to complain. Despite the open ending and the occasionally irritating section, the game is sporadically fun and worth a play if you like puzzle games.
Save System Review: Automatically saves the game at the start of each puzzle. Checkpoints at various moments within chambers but if you quit the game it will send you back to the start next time.
Graphics: Simple, cartoon styled graphics that are perfectly adequate for what is required but get a bit repetitive.
Sound: Decent soundtrack and sound effects, strong voice acting from John de Lancie.
Bugs: One bug where I hit a checkpoint while carrying a battery and when I died, the battery was stuck floating in midair and I was unable to move it, meaning I had to restart the entire puzzle. And it was right after a really tough annoying section too. That’s the only bug I experienced in the game.
Gameplay: Great concept and some strong puzzles, marred by a poor physics engine and some awkward jumping sections.
Storyline: Virtually non-existent, but storyline isn’t too important in this sort of puzzle game. The ending seriously spoils things though.
Arbitrary Final Score:
If you like this, you might also like: Portal series (obviously), stacking boxes.
Think the review is right, or does the reviewer belong in a cell in the Fluffy dimension? Answers in the forum!