Game Review: Quantum Conundrum [Xbox 360/PS3/PC]
Quantum Conundrum is a first person puzzler where, as the twelve-year-old nephew of the brilliant Professor Fitz Quadwrangle, you’re tasked with working through his mansion after one of his experiments goes horribly wrong (typically just moments after you arrive). After grabbing the Interdimensional Shift Device, you’re able to shift through the four distinct dimensions of Fluffy (everything is lighter), Heavy (things are heavier), Reverse Gravity and Slow time. As your abilities start pretty small, so do the puzzles for the most part, with the more interesting and elaborate larger rooms arriving nearer to the end of the four and a half experience, requiring some pretty precise platforming. The way in which the individual dimensions are introduced is pretty seamless, and provides an almost perfect learning curve, always allowing you to get the hang of one dimension before introducing another.
The easiest thing to do here is to get the Portal comparison out of the way. It’s no lie that Quantum Conundrum wouldn’t have likely existed without Portal, though it’s not as a simple as a copycat game. Kim Swift, one of the designers behind the original Portal title was the creative mind behind Quantum Conundrum, and even though there are similar structures in place, as are the basic movement mechanics, instead of the grey walls of a science test lab, you’re making your way through a giant mansion with a much friendlier and charming atmosphere.
While far from its strongest aspect, the story and narrative flow do work to lead you through the linear structure of the title, as does the voice of Quadwrangle (John de Lancie) whose voice follows you through the house over the intercom. When you stop to think about it, the idea of this being someone’s mansion in which they’d live and go about their day is pretty insane. It would have been nice to have a little more development both in and around the mansion itself, as you never get a glimpse of the outside world, and there isn’t much in the way of hidden nooks and crannies to explore and expand the fiction. While you may say that this is once again another Portal comparison, I feel it’s important for a game that is aiming to develop character and personality to have hidden nuggets for those who want it. The various portraits that fill the mansion do have a charm (and change in each dimension), but some more story-based collectables would have been great.
The controller seems almost perfect for the title, with the dimension switching ability kept to the bumpers and triggers (on the console), meaning that you always have easy access to them, though it may mean you’ll have to learn to keep your hands in a different position than normal. Careful jumps and precision platforming is required, though unfortunately there is no analogue movement, meaning that you’re either running, or stationary, thankfully however, the jump is consistent, and there is air control, allowing you to correct yourself after the fact.
While there may not be a huge amount of plot development, there are a few fun things to look out on your quest. Book names have a scientific twist, with titles such as Moby Dichromate, Ho:Ratio Hornblower and Beowatt. Adding to the charm, a little critter named Ike, a kind of cat lemur creature, is generally around to point you in the right direction, or perhaps pass you a battery. The batteries are required to access the different dimensions, so for the most part each puzzle room has multiple parts to them, as to say you need to first get access to the various dimensions by finding the batteries, before finding the exit. There were only a couple of puzzles which stumped me for a while, and generally the easiest way to see how things work is to press all the available buttons, and you will slowly piece it together. As quick reflexes are sometimes important, you’ll likely want to head to the controls screen early on, as since the jump and grab buttons are assigned initially to the face buttons, it can result in some pretty quick hand movements where you’ll need to switch to a dimension just as you jump or grab and object. You can instead choose to have these functions assigned to stick presses, and it will likely alleviate some frustration.
The core single player experience can be completed in less than five hours, though the leaderboards do add a lot of replay value for those who want a challenge. Each puzzle has both goal times and goal shifts, and also asks you to complete each level without dying for those achievement/trophy hunters. Collectables are also on offer, though do little to add to the title. You’ll also be able to access the R&D lab, a kind of playground like environment, though there’s really not much to it.
Each puzzle room is very well designed, with few ever causing much confusion as to what the task is, or where the exit was located, and instead the core focus is on manipulating the room instead of working out which direction to head. The transformation into the different dimensions is snappy, and it’s always fun to see all the objects affected by the great physics system. The main movable objects are safes and boxes, though furniture does play a larger part later in the game. At a core level, the safes are the primary tools through which you can interact with the world. They’re movable when in the Fluffy dimension, fly upwards when in reverse gravity, and travel slowly when in the slow time dimension, allowing you to hitch a ride over vast chasms. Thankfully Dolly, the cheerful robot face is always ready to spit out the various objects in the game world, as to alleviate any issues of ‘breaking a puzzle’ if you accidentally lose an object you need. You’ll encounter robots, lasers, and the ‘unidentified biological liquid’ on your travels, with many of the puzzle rooms involving lots of moving obstacles.
Shifting dimensions is always fun to mess around with, though unfortunately the music doesn’t reflect the change. It’s certainly a missed opportunity, how about some flutes when in Fluffy, or some brass when in Heavy? De Blob had an awesome music system that adapted depending on what you did in the game, and I can’t help but feel that it would have been great here too. Overall, the small amount of songs do become a little repetitive, and some noticeable stock audio loops are pretty overt in spots.
Precise platforming is needed often, though thankfully the frequent checkpoints help to keep any issues of frustration at bay, however, having to hear the same narration a number of times after failed jumps can get a little tiresome. As with Portal, there are linking sections between each puzzle room, most pretty plain, but the later ones did include some interesting environments, though the repetition did seem a little odd. The Metroid style ‘Press button and wait for load’ doors often left me a little confused, as there’s no indication that anything is actually happening.
Death is actually an interesting proposition here, as the various ‘Thing # you’ll never experience’ titles are often a little morbid, and may even make you think for a second. Things such as “Growing beyond 4’0, Failing your way into middle management, Realising that a can of whipped cream is, in fact a meal, and Finding Yourself” are but a few, bringing up issues of depression, growing up and money problems. They’re interesting to say the least, but don’t quite fit with the rest of the charm.
The majority of the interesting aspects of the title come from repeat playing, and seeing how fast you can get through a level is always fun, with the slow time levels being very inventive. Portal may be a clear inspiration, but Quantum Conundrum should be judged on its own merits, of which there are many. While it never quite reaches the upper echelons of puzzles that Portal did, the challenge and creativity is certainly there, and I’d love to see where they’d go with a sequel, though the ending was a bit of a letdown.
The experience is substantial, though mileage will vary, but Quantum Conundrum’s charming environments and high production values makes it a game you should certainly try, and definitely deserves a place on your hard drive.