Developer – Airtight Games
Publisher – Square Enix
Platforms – PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Developed by the esteemed Kim Swift, former lead designer of the first Portal game, Quantum Conundrum offers a clever approach to the puzzle genre that can be extended to a much wider, and especially younger, audience. The game falls short, however, due to the repetitious nature of the level design and a reliance on excessively frustrating platforming.
In Quantum Conundrum you play as an antisocial 12 year-old whose mother thinks the best cure for you is pushing you on your genius uncle. Each time you visit, your uncle has a new invention that he prominently displays before kicking you out of his house so he can get back to work. During this visit he unveils his greatest invention yet: the IDS gauntlet. Before he can show it off, something goes terribly wrong and your uncle becomes trapped in a pocket dimension with some inconvenient amnesia. Now it is up to you to take hold of the IDS device and use its abilities to fix the power in the manor, hopefully restoring your uncle to your own plane of existence.
The gameplay is very much the same as one would expect from the designer of Portal. The player starts by grabbing an interdimensional device and then uses it to solve a variety of puzzle rooms divided by non-puzzle sections (the elevators of Portal reflect the hallways here). Over time the player gains the ability to shift into new dimensions: Fluffy dimension makes everything weigh ten times less, Heavy ten times more, Slow makes time pass in slow-motion, and Reverse Gravity reverses gravity (or is built upside-down).
None of these dimensions affect the player, making it possible to pull off complicated platforming maneuvers. Many of the puzzles are very interesting and fun but despite their cleverness, they tend to be too easy to solve. Most of the time the solution is very clearly ascertained, and when it is not, clues tend to be given to the player. This makes what could be a fun puzzling experience somewhat dull. Furthermore, it means the game relies not on solving puzzles, but on complicated platforming to make things difficult. In certain situations you have to go in and out of several dimensions while on moving objects and you have to navigate around laser beams and pipes (whilst throwing other objects you then have to get on top of). While the solution is obvious, it may take the player 10-20 minutes to get through a section, simply because of how complicated the maneuvering is. Needless to say, this can make the game more frustrating than fun.
Where the game still wins is through its quirky sense of humor and an abundance of witty jokes. While there is little dispute that uncle Quadwrangle is disagreeable at best, he makes up for it with science-y humor. Even the dying messages and loading screens are pretty funny if you are in the right moods. Furthermore, objects, particularly paintings, can change depending on the dimension you are in, which leads to some interesting and funny effects.
The graphics of the game are good for the cartoony nature that the developers were trying to create to appeal to younger players. After a player has gone through several rooms though, there is no longer any real variation on the type of aspects that are in the room, and the player quickly becomes accustomed to them. One or two new structures are added in the final level set, but then these are repeated for that entire set, leading to the same problem. While a comparison to Portal may not be fair, it was clear that even though Portal was set up in a series of similar rooms, the player was excited to move on to the next segment as the player didn’t know what to expect. This is felt especially when the player escapes outside of the testing chambers. In Quantum Conundrum, this is hardly felt at all, as each level’s graphics are very repetitive.
If recycled graphics are annoying, then repetitive sounds are doubly so. There are few things that make puzzling more frustrating than such sounds and Quantum Conundrum is ripe with them. There are actually collectibles that do nothing but repeat annoying sounds over and over again, making their collection more of a necessity because it is the only way to shut them up. The small fluffy creature, Ike, has the same problem. He is already pretty annoying as he steals all of the batteries you need to power dimensional shifts and puts them in inconvenient locations, but he also makes the most irritating sounds whenever he is close or you take a battery from him. Combine this with the persistent background sounds of chattering glass, a cow mooing, and a door slamming and one cannot help but get frustrated. Despite this, the music in the game is well done, and is perfect for the type of game it is attached to.
In terms of replay value, there isn’t much. There are time-trials, rewards for not dying in a level, and collectibles that can be found throughout the game but these only serve to give the player achievements. The levels are consternating enough without such things. I was excited at first to find that certain collectibles unlock dimensions in an R & D Lab, but then was quickly disappointed when I realized the room is just for fooling around with the physics of the game.
Overall, Quantum Conundrum is a solid puzzle game, and certainly suited for children in addition the older gaming crowd. At the same time, the platforming and repetition detract greatly from the game making replay undesirable. It is worth playing once and buying at its Steam price of $14.99.