Review: Q.U.B.E.

QUBE

Some games try to accomplish a great deal and sometimes they feel like an enthralled Bilbo Baggins (“Sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”)  To translate from geek, some products try to be everything to everyone and come off as boring or generic.  Billed as a first-person puzzle game, Quick Understanding of Block Extrusion, or “Q.U.B.E.”, is a student project turned into a full retail product by the three members of Toxic Games with some help from the Indie Fund.  Q.U.B.E. is a highly focused game that knows what it does well and does only that, meaning that some players will adore it and others will want nothing to do with it.

As suggested by the name, the game involves a lot of cubes.  With no explanation of why, players will assume the first-person perspective of an unnamed and unseen man/android/alien/vampire/ghost/being that possesses a pair of hands and an ability to jump.  This creature finds itself in a room wearing – or has as hands – strange gloves that popup on the screen when there is a thing to control.  Upon awakening and gaining cognizance of these black and white appendages, a room made up of white cubes is perceived.  Unless a player is content to stare at the room until the electric company shuts off his power and the computer screen goes dark, he’ll have to move forward to make something happen.

What is encountered are a series of rooms that contain puzzles.  These are not puzzles of the “I need the red key to open the red door” or the “use the red herring to advance” kind, they are a question of advancement.  Room after room and corridor after corridor, the goal is usually clear: Get out of that room.  As doors, made of a group of cubes, close the second their threshold is crossed, there is only ever one option to advance and the question becomes how to get there.  The game is the definition of linear; there is one dull and uncolored Easter Egg that is off the beaten path, but mostly it’s a large “get to the end” series of chambers and passages, sort of like the human digestive system.

In order to reach the end, players will have to conquer numerous, increasingly complicated block based puzzles.  The gloves control certain special cubes that are color coded.  For example, a red surface amongst a plane of white squares might be in front of a ledge that must be accessed.  To get there the player must hop on the surface, then look down and activate the red block three times to push it upwards to be able to jump to the ledge.  Or a group of three yellow surfaces can be seen, and activating each of them causes a different formation to rise, the most useful of which is a one, two, three set of steps.  Activation and deactivation is done from a distance by clicking one mouse button or the other and is usually easy to accomplish — only in a few instances was the block I needed to hit covered by an obstruction. 

At first the puzzles are fairly easy, but near the end the difficulty is quite high.  Eventually light reflecting puzzles and the use of magnets to move loose blocks are used to increase the complexity.  Also essential, and visually impressive, is the ability to use some switches, again at a distance, to move an entire part of a room at once.  Imagine a room with a switch on the wall that can be used to shift one entire wall to the left, with all its trappings moving as well.  Things can get quite mind-bending and will require careful planning to succeed. 

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In terms of describing what this game is, something that is not especially clear based upon looking at the screenshots, the above description is it.  Throwing money into Steam under the Q.U.B.E. heading will net one interactive spatial problems, nothing more.  It is difficult not to draw comparisons to Portal as the structure and look are similar — both feature brightly lit, clinical puzzle room after puzzle room.  Easy distinctions would be this game does not have portals or GlaDOS, which is to say, this game is not Portal.  The key difference from a gameplay perspective is that Q.U.B.E. is more contemplative than Portal.  Narbacular Drop and its spiritual successor are more platforming games as there are dangers and jumps to be made with rapid portal placement and the conservation of momentum.  There is far more moving and jumping than sitting for a few seconds to consider what blocks need to move and when.  There are a few instances where certain cubes will have to be activated at the right time, but by and large quick timing is not required.  Players will need to think about what they are about to do in the white cube rooms, not experiment on what will happen when the orange portal is placed on that wall.  It is a different game. Not better or worse, just different.

The visual style of the game looks nice and distinctive at first and only gets better from there.  The sharp white rooms have a surprising amount of variety in their shapes, but never let the design get in the way of the puzzles.  Everything looks like it is constructed out of soft plastic and avoids looking blocky – which is amazing given that virtually every object has six sides or is made out of three-dimensional solid objects with squared facets.  The color coded interactive blocks always stand out from the background and make for a clear and enjoyable environment.  At a certain point the lights go out, which serves as both a puzzle element (only one kind of block is illuminated at a time, so the player must remember where things are) and the game looks even better as the glowing, neon-lit squares are the only thing visible next to a few area defining cubes that shine in the darkness.  As a nice visual touch, the fingertips of the gloves glow the color of the block they are hovering over. 

An accompaniment of what snooty music nerds would call “techno soundscapes” is a great addition to the ethereal, largely white settings of the puzzle rooms.  It adds a sense of otherness and abstraction that compliments the gameplay.  It feels like geometry heaven, where blocks and spheres go when fourth graders close their textbooks.  The presentation is very cerebral, which is what one wants in a puzzle game.

Overall the game runs smoothly.  This should come as no shock as the environments are almost empty.  When the only objects being rendered are a few polished blocks and some hands, it would be depressing if there was a significant drop in the frame rate at any point.  Some technical bugs include a very rare graphical problem that caused the perspective to shift slightly for a split second as well as a problem with a Steam achievement not unlocking when it was supposed to.  I finished the game but apparently did not finish the third sequence, at least not according to my achievements list (a very singular achievement in and of itself as sequences happen one after the other and cannot be skipped).  While it may be by design, sometimes the movable blocks will pop away like a wet tomato seed if they are squeezed between other blocks.  Several of the later puzzles require loose blocks to be moved into certain positions, largely by being pulled by magnets.  However, as it takes a significant amount of time to activate and deactivate the magnetizing mechanism, the blocks will end up missing their mark more often than not.  It is a shame that these problems exist given how smooth the rest of the game is.

Before you look at the score, well, perhaps more accurate to say “immediately after you look at the score” as it would be a rare person that did not read the first six words of this sentence and not look at the score immediately below, you need to ask yourself how much you like a mental challenge.  There is not a lot else to this game other than puzzles.  Visually appealing, smooth, logical puzzles with appropriate sounds, but only spatial conundrums will be found in this product.  No explicit narrative, meaningful secrets, or New Game+ modes. Just puzzles.  Anyone who wants something other than interactive and immersive puzzle boxes should stay as far away from Q.U.B.E. as possible.  Others, those that like puzzles for puzzling’s sake, should definitely:

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Pros:
+ Great, inventive puzzle rooms
+ Unique minimalist visuals

Cons:
– Nothing else to the game

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Toxic Games / Indie Fund
Developer: Toxic Games
Release Date: 1/6/2012
Genre: Puzzle
Players: 1
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.