There are parts of this game that are satisfyingly puzzling… and other parts which are maddeningly so
I love puzzle games. Well, puzzles in general, but puzzle games in particular. World of Goo, Mario’s Picross, the Professor Layton series, Daedalian Opus (anyone even remember that one?), Fez… there’s something I find very rewarding about games that challenge my mental acuity, and not just my reflexes. So when I was offered the opportunity to review the latest brain child from Kim Swift, one of the minds behind Narbacular Drop (the game that would become Portal), I jumped at the chance.
Quantum Conundrum comes to us from Airtight Games, the creators of Dark Void (currently the only other game to their credit) – a game with a lot of good ideas, but lackluster execution.
Unfortunately, this game follows in those footsteps in some respects, though thankfully not to the same extent. The game begins with you (a young boy) being unceremoniously dumped on the doorstep of your uncle’s house, Quadwrangle Manor. Unbeknownst to your mother, the uncle (Professor Fitz Quadwrangle) has been conducting bizarre experiments, and prior to your arrival became trapped in a ‘pocket dimension’ with no memory of what happened or where he is. Fortunately from the confines of his dimensional prison he is (somehow) able to observe your every move, and communicate with you, and so begins your quest to reactivate three generators, find your lost uncle, and unlock the mystery of what happened.
To facilitate your search you are almost immediately granted access to an Inter-Dimensional Shift device (IDS), which looks remarkably similar to a Nintendo Power Glove. This glove, in conjunction with Dimensional Batteries allow you to ultimately access four different dimensions: Fluffy, where everything is light; Heavy, where everything is (duh) heavy; Slow Time, where time slows to a crawl; and Reverse Gravity, where… c’mon. You can figure it out, can’t you? It’s a very smart dynamic, and serves to set it apart from most games on the market.
Careful manipulation of these dimensions is the key to solving the puzzles the game throws at you, and working your way through the mansion. Say you have a safe and a pressure plate… switch to Fluffy dimension, and you can pick up and carry the safe to the switch, then shift to the heavy dimension so the safe weighs enough to activate the switch. Voila. The pacing is well implemented, with each new mechanic introduced separately, allowing you ample time to get to know the ins and outs before adding more complex elements. By the abrupt (and rather unsatisfying) end of the relatively short campaign you will encounter puzzles that require you to utilize all four (five, including ‘normal’) available dimensions with precision in order to progress. It’s all very cleverly implemented, and some (though not many) of the challenges are deviously complex.
Throughout the game you get a steady commentary and occasional hints from your uncle, voiced by John DeLancie, most well known for his role as ‘Q’ in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The running monologue tends to be fairly clever and witty, but there really aren’t any memorable or standout lines. Still, the rambling is fun, particularly if you stop to look at one of the paintings hanging throughout the manor. Uncle Fitz will often regale you with an explanation for the picture, and they’re often quite humorous. There’s also a point where he’s in an area filled with discarded cell phones, and quips “The things you kids text to each other… is English really that difficult?” which I found particularly charming. Even though the professor is in need of your help to rescue him, there are times that he makes it clear that you’re really not welcome, and he resents your presence. It’s a strange dynamic, and at times falls short of the humor it’s trying to convey. Further, the voicework seems a bit inconsistent, and there are instances when DeLancie sounds a bit bored, though with his dry style of delivery it’s hard to know for sure.
The audio is mostly good, full of sounds of what’s known as ‘Science Juice’ bubbling away, and buzzing electricity. Sound effects and visuals also change depending on the dimension you currently occupy, helping to give each world its own, distinct feel. There are also some weird quirks with the audio though. In particular, there’s an ambient sound of breaking glass that’s heard throughout the game for no apparent reason. There’s also a hallway where your uncle greets you with the phrase “Well that was unexpected” with no context whatsoever. I actually reloaded the checkpoint several times trying to discover what unexpected thing he was referring to with no luck. The only conclusion I could draw was that he was referencing some unseen thing in the ‘pocket dimension’ in which he’s trapped, but it was so vague and nebulous a statement that it just seemed out of place.
Speaking of hallways, get used to seeing them. More accurately, get used to seeing the same (though perhaps a different color) hallway over and over and over again. In fact, get used to seeing a LOT of stuff over and over and over again. The games visuals are incredibly repetitive and uninspired. There are two types of chair (one of which is simply a wider version of the other), two types of table, one style of bookshelf, and a suit of armor, and a few ‘sciency’ elements, and these assets are reused ad nauseum throughout the game. Now, this game isn’t intended as a graphical showcase, but the minimalistic approach takes things a bit far in the other direction. As a result, Quadwrangle Manor winds up feeling like a somewhat dull, drab environment, rather than a quirky place where crazy scientific experiments are done.
Sadly, things aren’t all wine and roses on the gameplay front, either. In puzzle games there’s always an bit of an “Aha!” moment when you figure out what you’re supposed to do, and your brain releases a tiny trickle of endorphins as a reward for being so clever. In this game, however, the “Aha!” moment can quickly turn to frustration as the gameplay mechanics and funky physics engine makes actually carrying out the solution more difficult than it should be.
For starters, the game is presented in first-person view, and first-person and platforming go together like strawberry jam and canned tuna, particularly when precision is mandatory. This doesn’t render the game unplayable, and you get the feel for it fairly quickly, but it does present some problems. Around the third time I was halfway across a pit of death when I abruptly slid off the edge of the safe I had been riding, because apparently I was precariously close to the edge (though I had no way of knowing that), I came to the conclusion that this game would have been far better suited to a third-person perspective. The inability to see your feet forces you to go by instinct and guesswork, and adds a level of unnecessary frustration to the game.
Then there are the issues related to the game’s physics. Much of the platforming you do involves safes that are ejected from mechanical mouths (called DOLLIs, a clever acronym for something unimportant) at the push of a button. Usually the system works well, but there are times when the game’s own mechanics become your worst enemy.
Imagine you have five dice, and you toss them with some force against a wall. What are the odds that they’ll wind up in a relatively straight line and roughly equidistant from each other? Not very good… and this is precisely the issue I had with one particular puzzle. Safes were launched into a wall, then tumbled a bit too randomly to the bottom of a pit, and I literally spent nearly 15 minutes pushing a button over and over again until the safes finally landed in a configuration where I was able to use them as stepping stones. It was a matter of pure chance, and I had no control whatsoever of the outcome (though I was probably less fortunate than most people will be). Not particularly compelling from a player’s perspective, and any sense of accomplishment I may have had was drowned out by the sound of my grinding teeth. These kinds of issues aren’t frequent by any means, but they do occur, and they serve to detract from the overall experience.
On the whole, the game feels like it was released in a marginally unfinished state. I don’t know if publisher Square Enix was applying pressure, or if this was the game that was envisioned from the start, but it could have used a bit more time in the oven. There are some visual issues that give the impression of lazy or rushed programming, and not just because of the repetitive environments. For instance, there was one point where I had to throw a safe through a pane of glass above a ‘bottomless’ pit… only to have the shattered glass land on the invisible floor five feet below me, destroying the illusion of depth. Hardly game breaking, I know, but it was distracting enough to be memorable.
It’s not a bad game by any means… in fact there are some very unique and enjoyable elements to the game, but the fun is sometimes outweighed by aggravation. You may have noticed the repeated use of the word ‘clever’ throughout this review, and there’s a reason for that. In a sense I get the impression that the team was so focused on proving how clever they were that ‘fun’ was pushed to the back burner. That’s not to say that fun was completely left out of the equation… I actually quite enjoyed most of the time I spent playing. And it IS very clever… the cloning machines are named DOLLI, clearly a reference to Dolly, the cloned sheep; the mechanical drinking bird whose sole purpose is to push a button over and over is called Desmond, which anyone who watched Lost will certainly understand; the script is sharp and witty, and full of jokes that will tug at the hearts of science nerds everywhere; and the song that plays over the closing credits is fun and bouncy, and one of the highlights of the game. They even make fun of how ‘samey’ the environments are within the game, and this self-referential humor makes it a bit more acceptable.
Unfortunately, it takes more than cleverness to make a great game. The puzzles are mostly well designed, though few of the solutions are so fiendish that you’ll have difficulty recognizing them. In fact, figuring out the solutions is often easier than carrying out said solution. There are quite a few genuinely stellar moments as you learn to skilfully manipulate the various dimensions to achieve your goals, but they’re tempered by a fair bit of hair-pulling. The ability to replay any level to beat set times, or to use the fewest dimensional shifts possible does add a touch of variety and value to the game, and the challenges posed will certainly put your skills to the test. With a few tweaks this could have been a truly standout example of the puzzle genre, and hopefully future iterations will refine the gameplay, but as it stands some questionable mechanics get in the way and relegate it to merely above average status.
Tested on PS3