Portal, Portal, Portal, Portal. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, it’s not really fair to refer to Quantum Conundrum as a Portal knock-off. Even though the presence of ex-Valve Software and Portal co-creator, Kim Swift on the Airtight Games team would justify such an imitation, the puzzle mechanics in QC are unique enough that very little of the problem-solving you may have learnt in your escape from Portal’s Aperture Science facility will help you here.
We reckon it’s best to think of Valve’s endearing games as the genesis of a new first-person puzzle genre -- showing everyone that first-person games don’t necessarily need firearms to be engaging -- and Quantum Conundrum as being just the second game of likely many more to come, to explore and expand that space.
QC’s narrative puts you in the shoes of a young boy in an aristocratic family, who is on a visit to his eccentric scientist uncle’s enormous family manor, where the player is led to understand that he is usually witness to demonstrations of his uncle’s many outrageous inventions.
However, on this visit things have gone awry and your uncle has become trapped in an alternate dimension, leaving him as a disembodied voice to guide you through the fundamentals of the challenges you must overcome to free him -- conveniently having lost his memory of how to actually solve any of the specific puzzles.
In short, it’s a convoluted premise established in an attempt to create the same gameplay devices as Portal’s GlaDOS and her Aperture Science test labs with a different face and name. The execution is a little clumsy and lacks the attention to details that explained the implausibilities in Portal, such as Chell’s spring shoes that excused the lack of falling damage, and the giant puzzle environments that were computer-generated and systematically-manufactured in Portal, we’re supposed to believe are all the creation of our eccentric uncle and his magical “science juice” substance in Quantum Conundrum.
But that the game establishes these basic similarities is excusable as they are welcome fundamentals for this genre and the game mechanics alone are distinct enough to set it apart.
In Quantum Conundrum, your interface with puzzle-solving is presented in the form of a glove that allows the player to shift between dimensions. We’re not talking Sliders or Quantum Leap style wormholes to strange new worlds here, but rather four very similar alternate dimensions that each only have one difference in a key physical property of our home/”normal” dimension. Activating your glove instantly transports you to the selected realm where your environment and all of the objects in it (except you) now obey this one newly changed law of physics.
The two first examples (I won’t spoil the others) are “fluffy”, which whisks you and your surroundings into a dimension where everything is made of fabric and ten times lighter, and “heavy”, which casts everything around you into weighty steel. Toggling between these dimensions enables you to manipulate objects by lifting those that were previously too heavy to wield or activating pressure triggers using objects previously too light to function -- just two examples of many inventive ways these are used throughout.
As you progress, the introduction of mixing the different dimensions and the gameplay device by which you obtain them -- collecting and inserting a battery into a central power-source -- adds a gradually increasing level of complexity to the puzzle difficulty, an aspect that Airtight has expertly scaled.
The physics can be a little wacky at times, and some puzzles are easily exploited and subverted in ways that the creators either didn’t anticipate or couldn’t thoroughly fence off, but at the same time, this means that there is occasionally a few different ways to cheekily complete a tough section without necessarily having to figure out the exact way in which the creators intended it to be solved.
As the game progresses, the only major criticism is the repetitive environments. The mansion is presented in a pleasant cartoonish aesthetic, built on Epic’s Unreal Engine 3, but after the first few rooms everything is already starting to look pretty sameish, which only becomes more glaring later as you notice more and more recycled set-pieces.
Room after room is decorated with the same limited assortment of bookshelves, tables and armchairs, and the variety of puzzle objects primarily consists of the same cardboard box and safe model repeated ad-nauseum. The occasional decoration such as the science-nerd book titles and the paintings on the wall that amusingly change to reflect what dimension you’re in are a nice touch, but a wider range of textures and environments would have been very welcome.
That said, it’s hard to be too critical of this shortcoming, as the game has launched at a very generous US$14.99 on Steam and it is clear that the time saved in crafting more textures and unique environments has been invested into the puzzle quality and quantity. There’s at least a good five hours of playtime in the campaign, and then you can try your hand at replaying each puzzle to beat certain challenge conditions.
Quantum Conundrum isn’t of the same calibre as its inspirational predecessor at Valve, but if you’re looking for a new first-person game that doesn’t involve violence, weapons or adult themes of any kind, the low entry price seals it as a worthy addition to a genre that we hope will continue to blossom.