Reviews: Quantum Conundrum

Original and charming, worth the 15 bucks

I like to see original ideas get made in a marketplace that appears to be dominated by (if advertising is anything to go by) Darker And Edgier gritty military shooters. In the midst of that, here's a hyped-up... cartoon-themed puzzle game that involves changing between dimensions to solve puzzles.

The dimensions in question are a fluffy-themed dimension where everything is light, a metallic dimension where everything is heavy, a slow-motion dimension and a reverse gravity dimension. In other words, you're basically changing between weight, speed and gravity direction, but with some extra graphical effects because you're technically switching "dimensions", when gameplay-wise, you're switching properties of the game world. What's more, while the dimension switching idea is interesting, the graphical changes between the different dimensions are largely minor. Mostly some color changes, any paintings hung up on the wall change (in amusing, cute ways), and that's largely it. I was expecting more radical shifts, but like I said, this is really a game about changing world properties.

The puzzles are action-based, and sometimes involve timing your dimension shifts. The concepts are simple at first and gradually get more complex, to the point where a puzzle may involve switching to fluffy dimension to pick up a safe, throwing it, switching to slow-motion dimension to stand on it (in its normal, non-fluffy form), then reverse-gravity to cause it to rise upwards while you're standing on it so you can ride it up. If that sounds complex, by the time you reach a puzzle like that, it'll completely be second nature to you. The dimension switching is done merely by pushing a key or button, and happens instantly. The puzzles themselves are ingeniously creative and make great use of the game's mechanics, though I was rarely stuck for too long on any puzzle.

The mood of the game is very light and cartoony, with G-rated humor, and death being nothing more than a quick fade out followed by a gently humorous message. It's a big difference from the more sarcastic humor of Portal, and a nice change of pace from the types of games that are usually advertised on Steam. I'd like to see more games this imaginative and different.

Not The Best Game It Can Be

4 years ago, Quantum Conundrum would have been the game everyone was dreading; Portal for kids, the humor neutered and the story piecemeal. Now, judging by the anticipation for the game, we've warmed up somewhat to the idea, and are quite willing to meet it on its terms, if it's done well.

And done well it is; the puzzles are masterfully structured and designed (though I feel the Source engine would be better suited for the physics required than the ubiquitous Unreal 3) and retain the perfect balance of challenge and reward, inducing that great feeling when everything clicks and you've outsmarted the environment. Since this is the game's core, this goes a long way toward redeeming the game's many flaws and making it genuine fun, so I do recommend the game for this if nothing else.

The bad news is that the game is a serious let down from Portal in the context department. Portal 2's story and visual design are what cemented it in the public consciousness, and there's the unpleasant feeling that Airtight has been painting safes over the cubes, doglike happy faces over the dispenser vents, and drowning out Ellen McLain's deadpan gallows humor with veteran actor John de Lancie's much more friendly and childlike comedy, and the stark, flat laboratory aesthetic with a much brighter and rounded feel that reminds me of a cross between Bio Shock and Scribblenauts. This perhaps best represented by Ike, a fuzzy green thing that exists solely for his own sake and to justify the occasional annoying internet meme reference.

Quantum Conundrum's best story aspects are its original ones - the paintings that your faceless uncle elaborates on (and change along with the dimension you're currently in, a very good touch), and the death screens that hearken back to Sierra adventure games, giving a randomized "Thing you'll never experience" along the lines of "Lying on your taxes...a little" and "Reading about current events just so you know what to be outraged over", which provide the best humor to be found in the game.

Perhaps the entire experience of Quantum Conundrum is summed up by its ending song: An upbeat, bouncy alternative rock tune that would be good on its own, but gets annoyingly repetitive and (because the game is made by huge conglomerate Square Enix, necessitating very long credits) overstays its welcome.

133.33% more dimensions than leading games

Obligatory Portal comparison: you're solving science puzzles with a snarky voice over an intercom guiding you.

With that out of the way, Quantum Conundrum is a game that stands well on its own merits. The gameplay, based around creatively shifting between multiple dimensions with different effects, is simple enough that few puzzles have a solution where you'll say 'I didn't know I could do THAT', while still managing to provide a fairly steady level of critical thinking. There's not too much handholding—your uncle chimes in on occasion, but you can't rely on him to be much help at all. As opposed to a wholly cerebral approach, there's also a good amount of platforming, giving the game a good sense of motion as well. You'll gradually build up a small arsenal of tricks at your disposal, from the simple mid-air heavyify glass-smasher to the more complicated slow-mo fling mount leading into an alternating gravity float across a chasm.

The graphics look great, with the cartoony style working well and with very few visual glitches at all to speak of. Those with less powerful computers might wish to wait a bit—there are options supposedly toggleable in the UE3 config files for the game, but as it is (reviewing this soon after launch) there's no way to turn down some of the more advanced effects like the motion blur and ambient occlusion. The dimensions, especially the Fluffy and Heavy dimensions, look iconic in their own way and seeing the same room in multiple different themes is pretty interesting to look at. The music is good and fits into the background neatly as boppy science tunes of various moods.

The writing isn't going to make you stop and laugh and sadly there's not a lot of eminently quotable lines, but it still works well as a goofy, Dexter's Lab-ish science romp with lots of one-off jokes and references. There are complaints rolling around about a somewhat abrupt ending—the final 'puzzle' is a fairly simple one (after a couple of particularly complex ones) but in my opinion, it didn't feel out of nowhere or like I was cheated out of game time. Having two sets of DLC with achievements already planned out on release is not something I'm a proponent of, mind you, but I didn't feel as if I was cheated out of an ending.

So is it another that-game? No. But is it fun and worth the price? Definitely.