Portal comparisons with Quantum Conundrum are practically inextricable: both are first-person puzzle games with similar narrative structures, both employ an innovative idea for the genre, and both bear the involvement of Portal co-designer Kim Swift. The acquirement of a figurehead to one of the most beloved new series of this generation can even rouse one’s interest for a lesser studio like Airtight Games (Dark Void). Although Quantum fails to leap ahead or maintain the same level of quality as its puzzling precursor-in-spirit, there’s distinctive character and challenge that makes this a worthy invention all its own.
Opening with his mansion teetering on a hillside, Professor Fitz Quadwrangle begins this charming adventure by stating how he hates his little nephew always being dropped off unannounced because his sister thinks he needs company. After causing a kerfuffle with his current experiment while the boy is visiting, Quadwrangle gets trapped in a pocket dimension and suffers memory loss of the events that led up to the incident. With no other option, this near-adolescent protagonist is foisted into traversing the manor’s dangerous rooms with the help of a psychics-defying contraption in order to save him.
Given that turning on three separate power generators is the only objective throughout most of the game, story is more or less dependent upon the writing outside of the straightforward plot to preserve anyone’s interest. Since Quadwrangle is in a strange rift of time and space, he’s omnipresent and provides hints, puns, and non-sequiturs while the player is progressing. Despite the excellent opportunities, numerous comedic deliveries are written up haphazardly. There’s certainly a charm in the narrative concept of traveling through the manor halls hearing this extraordinary expositor of theories and contumelies, but most of that verbal communication ends up being scientific grandiloquence and unfunny snootiness. There are some ideas that contain better jokes; most humor centered behind portraits in the mansion and a green, furry creature named Ike supply droll absurdity time and again.
With so much time focused on meaningless side-stories, one can come away shocked at how detached this world seems. By that I mean the writing rarely took advantage of framing the dialogue to make everything feel more involving or play any readily available fourth-wall breaking jokes on the bizarre tasks that are undertaken. In Portal, so many ideas—be it a hidden area of a test chamber or a spoken line—made that series of connected rooms have their own atmosphere. Here, this large mansion and a majority of Quadwrangle’s speeches have little focus on the fiction. On top of that annoyance, the ending is hastily cobbled together, in regards to both story and gameplay.
Although there are enough silly side-tracks throughout, writing missteps elsewhere do sap some fun out of the title. I may enjoy the wacky nature fueling the script but I can’t help wondering if no attempt at a story would’ve worked out better. I certainly would have less to complain about.
Graphics is another inconsistent aspect in Quantum. The biggest visual problem would be the lack of disparity between rooms. The puzzles look nearly identical in each wing, save for the different-colored wallpaper, leaving visual progression left solely to the rising difficulty of the challenges. This wouldn’t feel like such a flaw if any context behind this were given; but in this case, players are just left with a simple joke by Quadwrangle saying “these rooms are all starting to look the same to me.” This annoyance both inside and outside the brain-teasing rooms is alleviated by the fact at how easy it is to navigate through them. Lopsided surfaces and soft textures do well in meshing that quirky aspect with accessibility—remarkably so with dimensions that alter the geometry. Given the art style, technical graphics don’t necessarily demand as much attention; however, praise should be given for the fluid instantaneous transition between dimensions. The only slight quibble in this area would be texture pop-in happening too often when entering and exiting levels.
The one impeccable quality of this game would be the voice acting by John de Lancie (most popularly known for his role as Q on Star Trek). Even though the script often tarries to second-rate humor, when Quadwrangle’s better epigrams or loquacious jokes occur the delivery is perfect. It’s a shame that’s not the only sound throughout the game. Although vomiting contraptions are strangely amusing to hear, most effect sounds are typical and the soundtrack tries too desperately to have that peculiar “edge” (think monotonous keyboard beats mixed with random cartoonish noises). Although de Lancie’s voice acting is noticed much more often, it would have been nice to see something more inventive throughout all facets.
Before reaching the reactors to repower the mansion, players need to go through a series of rooms containing anything from high-intensity lasers to lethal Science Juice™. With the innovative possibilities of the IDS (Inter-Dimensional Shift) device, properties of the surroundings can be manipulated from the four available dimensional rifts (outside of normal) to overcome obstacles:
• Fluffy: Objects become ten times lighter
• Gravid Wolfram(or Heavy, for short): Objects become ten times heavier
• Slow: Time is decelerated
• Reverse Gravity: Any unbolted objects will “fall” upwards
Since only one dimensional rift can be used at a time, most puzzles are constructed around rapid changes of the environment. Example: one can use Fluffy to pick up a couch, throw the couch over the gap, quickly switch to Slow and jump on the couch, then finally perform “couch surfing” by consistently shifting gravity between the floor and ceiling, allowing the momentum from the throw to carry the player over a large gap.
Strategies later in the game, like the longwinded illustration mentioned above, can certainly be a conundrum to absorb all at once; but because of the game’s excellent pacing it will be almost too easy to grasp. Giving no control initially to the player is the smartest way of introducing each new dimension. With this tactic, while allowing Quadwrangle to explain the guidelines, grasping the different properties of each dimension comes more fluidly. Once the newfound power is at your disposal, another wrinkle is presented through the means of dimensional batteries and generators within particular rooms. Oftentimes, the meta-challenge is simply finding ‘x’ battery hidden in the room with the other dimensions available to you; a few unique occasions, such as the “Choose Wisely” puzzle, provide greater demand. Through this smart structure of introducing and mixing the multitudinous gameplay elements, both quandaries regarding accessibility and challenge are handled in one fell swoop.
Despite any player’s anticipation of the gradual incline in difficulty, there’s no way to avoid the inevitable frustration—in a good way—behind certain solutions. I was stumped in one room trying to figure out how to turn off a set of lasers because a fan disrupted my attempts at stacking fluffy safes (what I thought to be the correct tactic at the time). After taking a break and then returning to the game, the loading screen stated the key to my success: “Don’t forget that normal is a dimension too,” which caused me to realize another item I used earlier within that room. The wonderful moments of mentally processing the “tougher” puzzles came down to me not thinking of the simplest solution first, often because of visual tricks implanted in the puzzle. By implementing such layers of logic with either a new dimension or environmental design within a level there’s a confounding amount of moments where the dilemma feels like a true brain-buster, yet astonishingly obvious upon completion—the mark of clever puzzle-crafting.
As hinted earlier in the review, it’s certainly a shame to see the genius of the first forty-plus levels lose some of their sheen because of the finale. After so many nuances kept building upon each other earlier, the last two levels change to a more confounding philosophy by initially subtracting more and more elements as you progress and then giving them back in an unchallenging fashion. Every design decision for the end felt rushed.
Though compliments in structure and ingenuity mirror that of Portal, comparisons between the two run sharply athwart when considering the aspect of PERFORMING the physical challenge. What made Portal’s simplistic to-and-fro construct so easy to execute was that the platforming was all tied into aiming enter/exit portals. Once the puzzle was mentally processed, the actions would appropriately translate into success. That sound design philosophy of olde is never realized whenever Quantum employs first-person platforming. Instead, a constant struggle with the controls and depth perception ensues, dulling any sense of accomplishment for a task since it should have been completed several turns ago.
Beyond the five-hour campaign experience, replay value is considerably high thanks to collectibles and extra trials. The two key goals for each level are fastest time and least dimension shifts. These tests are what you’d expect, but genuinely challenging thanks to the demanding default targets and being tied in with online leaderboards.
Quantum boasts wonderful inspiration and unique ideas that could have weighed it as one of the premier puzzle titles on the arcade market; unfortunately, uneven execution has it found wanting of such an honor. The elegant ease of introducing nuances to the player, innovative concept, and atypical characters in this title do shine very often but are slightly tarnished by imprecise platforming and visual progression that’s absent too often. There are enough faults in each aspect of Quantum to withhold a certified recommendation—and give earnest admonition to those who are anticipating “the next Portal,” but the vast amount of genuine conundrums and oddball personality still qualifies it as a good game.
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