It is hard to follow a hit. If an artist really knocks a work out of the park one year and then announces to the world that she’ll be putting out something new, everyone naturally expects that thing to be as good as, or better, than what has come before. Unfair as it may be, if the new thing is good, but not as good as the first hit, critics and consumers alike will not view it as a success.
While obviously many more people were involved in the development of Valve’s extremely well received Portal, a development lead on the game, Kim Swift, announced a few years ago that she was going to make a game that had nothing to do with apertures with another company. The fruit of that move and continued labor is Quantum Conundrum, the flagship title from Airtight Games. The game is similar to Portal in that it is a first-person perspective title where players will use reality altering powers to solve physics-based puzzles. It is a good game, but one that in the shadow of Portal will not seem great.
Pressing Start will put you in the role of a young boy who is dropped off at a relative’s manor by his mother. Upon entering the grand house, the boy is not greeted by a stern, yet motherly aunt telling him not to touch things owned by famous ancestors, nor are there snide, little cousins who smile and beam when others are looking and stick their tongues out when no one is. No, he is greeted by nothing but an explosion. John de Lancie, probably best known for his role as the omnipotent Q entity in Star Trek: The Next Generation, provides the voice of your uncle in the game, Professor Fitz Quadwrangle. The professor is lost, somewhere, possibly in the manor, possibly in an extra-dimensional Bag of Holding (Type II), but can somehow communicate to his favorite – by default – nephew. The same sort of observant and mean wit of Q is on display here, but a few feet short of his high water mark. The Professor has obviously taken the animated movie Despicable Me as a life lesson as this is the exact same dynamic at play here: a mad scientist with begrudging concern, bordering on affection, for the youth in his lair. This surly uncle will eventually guide players to pick up the Interdimensional Shift Device (or IDS) which allows the user to alter reality to solve problems and advance. Hopefully finding his uncle, without touching anything.
As you go through the mansion he will regale you with somewhat contextual stories about the history of the Quadwrangles, his inventions, his general disappointment in you, and the seeping “science juice” that makes everything in the home go and glows eerily in pools and tubes. By and large what the Professor has to say is entertaining and occasionally even useful as he will sometimes give vague hints if one’s level progress is not timely. It is a good thing that de Lancie does a spectacular job in the voice acting department as his is the only voice you’ll hear in the game. Everything is kept in a light tone, even when the dangers of laser beams and bottomless pits are constant reminders of one’s mortality. Upon death, which can happen a fair amount in later levels, the game prompts a reload and includes a helpful message of “Things you’ll never get a chance to do” now that you’re dead, such as getting a bad haircut or accidentally hitting “Reply All”.
While it is first randomly encountered, turned on and off by a Drinking Bird toy rhythmically pressing a big red button, eventually players will gain the ability to shift quantum states. In the different states objects take on different properties and the look of the world changes slightly even though the same basic structure and location of the objects remains the same. This is not an entirely new gaming phenomenon. Until now, the best known example of this was the relationship between the spirit world and the material plane in The Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. Raziel was able to shift between the two parallel worlds which were basically the same but had different properties. Instead of swimming, the wraith could walk right through bodies of water in the spirit realm or some passages would only appear in one world or the other. Even the old Nintendo Entertainment System licensed platformer, A Nightmare on Elm Street, had a similar mechanic where the real and dream worlds were populated by the same enemy locations and platforms, things just looked far more twisted and were harsher in Freddy’s realm. While the basic mechanic is not as original as it could be, it is implemented in the Quadwrangle ancestral home far better than in the pair of examples given above.
The best thing about the IDS is that it allows players to switch quantum states on the fly, if they are in an area that has the appropriate battery stuck into the big science machine. It would have been a boring affair if only stationary buttons would alter things as the chances to mess with physics in strange and entertaining ways would have been far lower. There are three main areas where these quantum states are introduced gradually. The first two powers, access to the Fluffy and Heavy dimension, are not very impressive. They primarily only alter the weight of cardboard boxes and safes allowing them to be lifted and made solid, respectively. As the shifting does not affect you, the use of these dimensions only amounts to whether some objects can be thrown or made hard enough to break glass windows that might be in the way. The other two dimensions are significantly more interesting and fun.
The first is the time-altering dimension where the environment slows down to about a twentieth of real time. Going into this state causes everything to take on a yellow tinge and an ultra-slow ticking noise to be heard in the background. In this state laser beams can be outrun (don’t think about it, it’s slow, science light) and the IDS user can effectively teleport around by mechanically and virtually being in the same place at “once”. The last dimension is anti-gravity where everything that is not nailed down will fall up. While fairly straightforward, a consequence of the ability to reverse gravity rapidly means that objects can be made weightless as they will bob up and down in mid air if gravity is repeatedly shifted.
At its most basic, the levels are plain and can be completed without a great deal of precision or planning ahead: There’s a safe next to a pressure plate, you need to shift to the fluffy dimension to lift it up and then shift back to open the door. Many of the puzzles complicate this procedure by adding additional steps, but the solution to any room is often apparent. Other times it is merely a matter of getting to the last door and pressing the switch next to it to end the level (like DOOM, but with less hellspawn). Things get more complicated near the end and require a fair amount of planning and coordination. The hardest sort of problem would require all of the dimensions to be used in rapid succession. Say there’s a safe and you on one platform, another platform with a pressure plate on the other side of a bottomless pit with a fence of laser beams stretching across it. The solution is obvious: you and the safe need to be on the other side, but getting there is the problem.
To do so, one would need to make things fluffy to be able to pick up the safe, throw it, slow down time to be able to hop onto the safe, reverse gravity to make the safe – and you – go up, then switch to the heavy dimension to make the safe not be destroyed by the lasers (as it would disintegrated and you would fall to your doom), reverse gravity again to make it all the way to the other platform, slow down time near the edge to be able to hop off, turn around and go fluffy one last time to be able to pick up your safe-surfboard to put on the pressure plate. That momentum of objects is maintained, and one’s ability to personally ignore the shifts, makes all of this possible. Harder challenges like this one may take a couple of deaths to determine all of the steps necessary and to properly execute them, but it is rewarding when you finally pull it off.
By far the biggest disappointment of the game is the visual presentation. When things first start out, it seems that the physics-warping adventure will take place in a cute, cartoonish manor of whimsy and fun. The colors and edges are all soft, the furniture is evocative and appealing, and there are several portraits and pictures dotting many of the walls that give some look into the eccentric characters and pets that populate the world outside of the very empty puzzle rooms and pointless corridors that connect them. The paintings even change slightly whenever dimensional states change. A regular-looking man’s portrait might show a man covered in leather and metal spikes like a thrasher in the heavy dimension or subtly looking at his watch in the time-altering dimension. These are fun the first time you see them, but you’ll see the same ones many times.
Airtight Games also, sadly, does not inform players that they will involuntarily be shifted to the Disappointment Dimension, with no discernible means to turn back, about halfway through the game. In the Disappointment Dimension, games with great promise and designer pedigree become level packs for an exceedingly short game which recycles the same few objects and environments over and over again. Maybe we’ll get to shift back to the regular dimension in a sequel. I’d love to play the last half of this game in the regular world where the game’s look continues to be fresh all the way to the end.
Game short. Implying a verb is the only way I can fully communicate the length of the single player game, which should take most players about four or five hours, six at the absolute outside. I sympathize that it is difficult to make physics- and state-shifting based puzzles, but it is hard to ignore that there are not very many of them here. The promise of planned (and paid) DLC down the line does little to help budget conscious players swallow a bitter pill of two or three bucks an hour when there are so many other options out there. At fifteen dollars Quantum Conundrum is by no means a rip off, but it is not as lengthy an experience as I had hoped for. My impression of brevity is not helped when considering that access to all four alternate dimensions is not granted until late in the game. It almost feels like the entire game is a series of tutorials building up to the last hour of the game, which was the sliver of real meat in a bowl of tofurkey. Portal avoided this problem by giving all of the puzzle mechanics near the beginning with many puzzles after the acquisition of the portal gun and Q.U.B.E. peppered new mechanics in throughout as well as different looks and environment animations, thereby avoiding any feelings of not getting an entire game. By comparison, this game doesn’t feel quite as complete.
Perhaps in an effort to make up for its shortness-comings, many levels feature a hidden box-headed robot whose sole purpose seems to be to generate random and peculiar noises until it is collected or is called to make mischief for Gumby and his deformed, bug-eyed, orange steed. This can add to the replay value considerably as some of these little guys are either very out of the way or there appears to be zero means of getting close to one that is in plain sight. Often times getting the robot is far harder than solving the puzzle room it is hidden in. There are also speed run clocks and a dare to finish a room with the minimum number of shifts to help lengthen things a bit, but this is nothing particularly exciting or new.
Even though it falls short in certain areas, Quantum Conundrum is a quick ride that is amusing and fairly challenging and is overall inoffensive and worth anyone’s time that is looking for something accessible and different. If you’re a fan of puzzle games and things that are fluffy, check this game out.
+ Good puzzling which requires twitch reflexes and thought
+ Can be very funny
– Ends after a few hours
– Environments all look the same
– Startup menus take too long to get through
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for PSN and XBLA
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Airtight Games
Release Date: PC – 6/21/2012, PSN – 7/10/2012, XBLA – 7/11/2012
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Source: Game purchased by reviewer