Quantum Conundrum Review
You've heard of Portal, right? One of the most brilliant games to come around in the last decade? Of course you have. What a lot of people don't know is that Portal was the brainchild of a young game designer called Kim Swift, who was recruited right from the DigiPen institute of game development to make Portal after her little team completed a mostly-unknown game called Narbacular Drop (which had several gameplay devices we wound up seeing in Portal). But what I'm a little unclear on is what caused Kim to leave Valve to join nearby developer Airtight games, made up primarily of ex-FASA (Crimson Skies) developers. The rumor is that she wanted to make games with her friends, and while that seems maybe a little bit crazy when you've got a job at Valve, she at least stayed very busy. As a project lead at Airtight, Kim and her team have just released their first game together. It's a downloadable first-person puzzler called Quantum Conundrum, a name that admittedly doesn't really roll off the tongue.
The game's being released first on PC and eventually on consoles (a strange shift for downloadable games, where Xbox or PS3 exclusivity usually comes first), and I jumped into this game eagerly, especially after being thoroughly entertained by the demo at E3 earlier this month. And while QC does bring a whole new set of puzzles and some serious platforming challenges, the comedy factor, attitude, and even the puzzles themselves simply don't live up to what Portal did.
You play as a young boy, a nephew of Professor Quadwrangle, your usual kind of goofy mad scientist. You're visiting his sprawling mansion when something goes wrong and your uncle becomes trapped in some kind of strange dimension, but he can see what you're doing and guides you (well, narrates - he mostly leaves you to figure out the puzzles with only a rare hint when you're having trouble) through his mansion to help rescue him. The game's big gimmick item is the IDS glove which allows you to enable various dimensional shifts that affect the world around you (but not your own body directly). The first couple are pretty simple, as they make objects lighter or heavier; one early puzzle has you turning on the light ("fluffy") dimension to pick up a heavy safe and put it on a pressure pad, then disable it so that it has enough weight to push it down and open a door for you.
These dimensions each come with their own graphics and sound effects, so you'll see a nice woven, woolly pattern on otherwise heavy objects when you switch to the fluffy dimension. Mundane objects become made of solid, thick steel when the heavy dimension is activated, and the like. Throughout all of this, you'll be passing through rooms in a linear fashion, solving puzzles in much the same way Portal did it. In some rooms, some dimensions are not accessible, in others you have to find the batteries to enable certain dimensional shifts, and in still others the dimensions automatically shift at certain intervals and you've got to simply time your movements.
Unfortunately, the IDS glove - and dimensional shifts in general - just don't have that simple, iconic charm that the Portal gun had, and the technology behind the effect isn't quite as amazing as the first time we saw Chell staring back at herself through an active portal. On top of that, the IDS glove also isn't really visible on the screen which creates a bit of disconnect with the world, which I find disappointing. (I've often been heard saying that the star of a first person game is whatever you're holding in your hands, and aside from the odd bit where you carry things, that means there really is no "visible" star in QC.)
What I do really enjoy about QC is that the puzzles have that addictive and somewhat accessible quality to them, where you'll feel stumped and then have a Eureka moment all of a sudden, and feel really good that you figured it out and are energized for the next puzzle. Solutions aren't often found by way of just random experimentation or trial and error, and for me, this is vital for a puzzle game to be rewarding. Probably the only thing I can complain about is that the game involves a lot of object stacking, and Airtight's physics engine can be a little wonky, making some puzzle solutions either take longer than they should or sometimes just seem implausible when they're the only way to advance. On top of this, there can be a bit of an annoyance with the late game, when you're using rather floaty jumps to travel between flying objects, all while having to simultaneously switch dimensions in rapid order. For those who hate first-person jumping exercises, QC can be frustrating, but in the end it is worth it.
Throughout your stay in Quadwrangle's mansion, the professor will guide you, mock you, and act impressed at the prowess of the young boy you're playing as, but it's important to point out that this is no Wheatley, and it's certainly no GlaDOS. It's not that John de Lancie, voice actor for Quadwrangle (and the guy that played Q on Star Trek: The Next Generation, did a bad job - he acts out his lines to near perfection. It's just that the writing itself isn't nearly as slick or sharp as Portal veterans might expect. It's never terrible, but often merely passable, and while it may not be entirely fair to keep comparing QC to one of the best games made in recent memory, the overall similarities between the two - and the pedigree of the creator of both games - means that it's very difficult to keep expectations from being rather high.
From a technology perspective, Quantum Conundrum doesn't exactly move things forward. The PC version has only a few of detail options, but you can set field of view, motion blur, subtitles, brightness, and a couple of other bits and pieces. Controls are configurable, but the game also had some really bad screen tearing that must be fixed by digging into a video card control panel and playing around in there. On top of this, the game's texture quality is a little bit weak, and while the game's sprawling mansion does have some comic charm, its decorations are just a bit too spartan for me, like I was playing an early Wii game with wacky cartoon angles and shapes to try and disguise how empty many rooms are. There are just a few too many blank spaces and basic solid colors used everywhere for my tastes, and while that might be the only realistically plausible way for a small team keeping costs low on a downloadable release, I still can't help but feel a bit let down at some wasted potential here.
For me, it really is nearly impossible not to compare Quantum Conundrum to Swift's last project, the legendary Portal. In that context, it's hard not to be disappointed in the final result for this game, even though it's still very fun, smart, and challenging - and it all comes with a completely reasonable $15 price tag. It's just that I had hoped for more from Kim Swift, and it's become clear that Valve themselves contributed a good chunk of what made Portal an instant classic. Quantum Conundrum won't live on in memes and in gaming history quite like that, but if you're in the mood for a solid, entertaining puzzle-action romp, it's hard to go wrong with this game.
Disclaimer: This review was based on a PC digital copy of the game provided by Valve Software on Steam.