More or less every review I’ve seen of Quantum Conundrum has had a disclaimer at the start, in which the reviewer promises to refer to Portal as little as possible. It’s easy to understand why this is – it’s Kim Swift’s first big project after Portal itself, and it seems only fair that it be judged on its own merits. And yet, when reviewing a first-person game in which the player solves a series of increasingly mind-bending puzzles, often involving the manipulation of cuboid objects onto circular buttons, while being alternately lauded and insulted by an omnipresent narrator who doesn’t always have the player’s best interests at heart, it’s kind of hard not to think about Portal. There’s an elephant in the room, jumping up and down, wearing a ridiculous hat, shouting “NOTICE ME! NOTICE ME!”, and to ignore it would be doing this review a disservice.
Thankfully, having actually played the game, such eggshell-treading is completely unnecessary. Quantum Conundrum is well aware of its lineage, and isn’t afraid to reference it. “This would all be much simpler if you had the ability to teleport”, quips the omnipresent narrator at the end of yet another test ch- er, room. Bizarrely, there’s even a moment where the mute protagonist jumps on the spot instead of responding verbally to a question, although that’s probably less a homage and more a case of great minds thinking alike. The plot itself is fairly throwaway – you play the nephew of Professor Quadrangle, who has disappeared inside the enormous, labyrinthine Quadrangle Manor, which you must then explore, with the ultimate aim of rescuing your uncle from his own backfiring experiements. Quadrangle himself, always audible but never seen, is voiced by John De Lancie (best known as ‘Q’ from Star Trek: The Next Generation), providing narrative colour and context to your actions. The narration does a fairly reasonable job of keeping the plot ticking along, and some lines even raised a chuckle, despite others falling rather flat.
Puzzle mechanics themselves revolve around switching the world between four dimensions, each of which makes objects within the world behave differently. The first one you gain access to is the Fluffy dimension, which makes everything light and bouncy, meaning that objects which were previously too heavy to lift can now be moved with ease. The second is the Heavy dimension, which does the opposite – a normal cardboard box will bounce right off a glass window, but a Heavy one will smash straight through. The third and fourth, Slow Time and Anti-Gravity, do pretty much exactly what you’d expect. These aren’t permanent upgrades to the player’s repertoire, however. Access to each dimension is dependent on having the correct battery, which must be placed into the proper receptacle in order to be accessible. Many puzzles then revolve around not only determining what needs to be done to proceed, but also retrieving and activating the dimensional batteries in order to do so. Once again, much like Portal, the game does a fairly good job of explaining itself, with a few ‘tutorial’ levels in which Quadrangle introduces each new concept, before handing control over to the player for some more complicated puzzling.
Quantum Conundrum does have one thing over its parent series here, in the level of freedom given to the player. In its later stages, Portal 2 quickly became a game of ‘hunt the portalable surface’, with almost all puzzles having only one ‘correct’ solution. Here, while you may not always have the ability to access all four dimensions, there is – or at least, there appears to be – the scope for many puzzles to have multiple solutions. One good example of this is a room which asks you to choose just one dimensional battery, with the other three scattered across the level. You must then use the one you’ve chosen to collect the others, gradually increasing your ability set, before you are able to move on to the next area. As my toolset increased, I came across a good few rooms that I solved in a way that at least felt original, with that precious feeling of being a complete genius still wonderfully intact. If anything, I would say that the game was a little too easy, with a lot of the challenge coming from navigating the physical space, rather than the puzzle itself. There are occasionally some intriguing limitations, like having three dimensional batteries, but only enough slots to use two at a time, but concepts like this aren’t really taken far enough for my liking.
Technically, too, I have a few gripes, which started from the moment I first booted the thing up. As any PC gamer would, I went to set up my video and graphics settings. Except, well… There aren’t any. Just a resolution setting. Not even the standard (lazy) Low-Medium-High slider. Sure, the game looks good, but if you want something as basic as antialiasing you have to force it through your graphics driver. In a game whose project lead used to work for Valve. Hell, the game’s not even out on consoles yet, and my first thought was ‘gee, another terrible console port’. This means that if your PC can’t run the settings that Airtight Games have decided upon, then you’re shit out of luck. Admittedly, the standard settings are unlikely to challenge any reasonable gaming PC, but anyone wanting to run this on a mid-range laptop, expecting the nicely scalable options of Valve’s Source engine, will have a bit of a fight on their hands, most likely having to delve into the Unreal 3 engine’s .ini files to get anything done.
What makes this stupidity even more annoying is that the game itself is visually fantastic. Not only are the models well crafted and the textures sharp, but the level of attention to detail is astounding. Every object has a unique model and texture for each dimension, themed to fit its surroundings. So, a suit of armour with a spear in the normal world will be carrying a puffy ball on a stick in the Fluffy dimension, or a great big hammer in the Heavy dimension, all whilst still being the same suit of armour. Brilliantly, this even extends to the utterly gorgeous paintings that hang on the walls throughout Quadrangle Manor, and part of the joy of each new dimension comes in discovering what effect it will have on the artwork you’ve already seen. Unfortunately, this beauty is somewhat undermined by the inexcusably awful HUD – the protagonist seems to have had the characters 1, 3, Q and E permanently tattooed onto his retina, as they’re right in the middle of the screen the entire way through. These buttons end up controlling your dimensional shifts, which works fine, but there’s simply no reason for them to be so damned large. Hell, they’re even there when you don’t have the ability to shift. Again, the size and placement of these is a saddening indication of a UI clearly designed for consoles.
Ultimately, the game isn’t perfect. But it’s important to remember that, despite the necessary comparison, this isn’t Portal. If you go into it expecting Valve-level quality through and through, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you take Quantum Conundrum for what it is, an indie puzzle game released at a budget price, it’s much easier to forgive its flaws. In fact, it starts to look really rather polished. The frustratingly obvious consolification of the thing is disheartening, but in truth it doesn’t really impact on the game itself all that much. It is perhaps a little short – Steam tells me that the main story mode took me just under 5 hours to complete, and I certainly wasn’t rushing – but if you want more then there’s a whole set of hidden collectibles to find throughout the game, and each level is individually replayable with various challenges, like shortest time, or fewest number of shifts, which should tide over the faithful until the release of the (already confirmed) DLC. What I’d really like to see is the release of a fully-featured level editor, as there’s clearly a lot of untapped potential in the puzzle mechanics.
Would I recommend this instead of Portal? Of course not. But if you’ve had your fill of Aperture, and you want to twist your brain in new and interesting ways, you might find that Quantum Conundrum is just different enough to fill the gap.