Genre: Puzzle/Cards Developer: Publisher: Classification: G Release Date: 21st Jun 2012 Platforms:
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Itís impossible to review Quantum Conundrum without mentioning the broad shadow of Portal. Originally conceived as a student project called Narbacular Drop, what would become Portal had as its central idea the first person negotiation of a series of devious experimental test rooms. Rather than play the nefarious scientist looking on from behind reinforced glass, Portal saw you playing as the guinea pig, scurrying about each test chamber with only your wits and a portal gun.
The perfect design storm of Portal was that it managed to balance perfectly the see-saw emotions of frustration and revelation. Each chamber had an initial experimental phase, where you took stock of your environment, tested out what limited interaction you had and then connected the puzzle dots, enacting various satisfying actions in order to progress. Frustration, though felt, was rarely a byproduct of strict design in Portal. It always felt like there was an invisible hand helping you up that slightly steep step.
Quantum Conundrum sheds portal creation for the Inter-dimensional Shift Device Ė in common terms, a dimension-shifting power-glove. Echoes of Portal are present in every broad stroke of Quantum Conundrum, yet this is not exactly a copycat production, sharing its director, Kim Swift, who was one of the original creators of Narbacular Drop and Portal. Clinical test chambers are swapped for a manor-style laboratory setting and the companion cube is replaced with an endless stream of metal safes and cardboard boxes (used primarily to activate switches). The shared conceptual DNA with Portal is inescapable.
A loose story sets the scene. You arrive at your uncleís manor/laboratory and immediately realise that itís no ordinary mansion. Failed experiments litter the halls and your uncle, Professor Quadwrangle, has inadvertently transported himself to some strange dimension. Itís up to you to use the ISD to negotiate an entire manor full of traps and puzzle situations in order to rescue him. The old guy can still talk to you, though, and so you are ďtreatedĒ to monologues on family history as you travel between puzzle rooms through the gameís barely concealed effort to hide level loading. It even gets to the point, during the fifth or sixth time walking the same short hallway, that the professor says, ďHavenít you been through here before?Ē
The central mechanic of dimensional shifting is handled smoothly, although if youíre playing on PC you will want to plug in a game pad. A wired 360 controller works best, allowing you to pull off the quick shifts required for later situations. Dimensions are drip fed at an aching pace, to the point where it is several hours before you gain access to the fourth dimension. Even then, each puzzle arbitrarily limits which dimensions you can shift to.
In practical terms, the four dimensions are interesting enough, if predictable. There is the fluffy dimension, which turns everything light, pink and furry. Its primary use is to pick up and throw heavy object. Metal safes turn into plush cubes, giving you the power to throw them at glass and then switch back to normal for them to smash through. Next is the fluffy dimensionís opposite, heavy dimension, which makes everything ten times heavier. This turns cardboard boxes into steel cubes, enabling you to block laser grids or weigh down switches. The third dimension, slow time, is the most interesting, its quantum-bending power turning moving objects into handy elevators, conveyor belts and slow-moving stairs or platforms. Several cool puzzles using combinations of time slowing and the other dimensions present themselves, but as you can only have one dimension active at a time it feels like a missed opportunity to create some truly interweaving conundrums.
The final power changes gravity, causing objects to fly towards the roof. The cheat here is that the player character doesnít change, nor do many aspects of the manor. The professor says he has found a way to keep some objects from being affected by the dimensional shifts. In gameplay terms this simply means, ďMy way only, no interesting cheat-aroundsĒ. This rigidity, although understandable, ends up ruining the game, especially when compared to its much slicker cousin. Portal was amazing because it made you feel like you were cheating sometimes, when in fact that very solution had been factored into the level design. Quantum Conundrum offers a few situations where it might be possible to jag an alternative solution, but you are always fighting with a single-solution focus. It never feels like skilfully cheating the manorís puzzles. You are always distinctly on the limited, controlled side of the glass.
The puzzles are interesting in a Sunday-afternoon kind of way, but they never feel more than what they are: a bunch of separate ideas laid out in sequence. Portalís overarching narrative and characterisation was so strong that solving puzzles urged you to find out what was coming next. Quantum Conundrum gets boring midway through and the writing lacks any kind of zing. Frustration is also a big problem. Most rooms allow you to see what is needed, yet constant failures and retries abound due to its insistence on too much single player platforming. There are also logical inconsistencies Ė why canít I stand on a cardboard box thatís been made into a metal square in heavy dimension?
With few desirable alternative solution exploits, the inclusion of stats for goal times, minimum shifts and collectibles holds no meaning. You wonít go back to those levels because they contain no experimental interest. Of course, we have to factor in that Quantum Conundrum is a budget game and that it does not have the collective weight of Valve behind it. As far as $15 games go, itís not bad and will certainly offer several hours of play if you particularly enjoy this genre. Some of the ideas presented are interesting but it does feel too much like a proof of concept twisted into playable form.
If the shift powers had been less drip-fed, the puzzles more open to experimentation, the dimensions less generic and the general conceit more fully realised, Quantum Conundrum may well have blown us away as much as Portal did. Swift and the team at Airtight Games have willingly huddled beneath Portalís shade with no hope of adding to it.