In the first hour of playing Quantum Conundrum , the critic part of me was well on its way to delivering a very favorable verdict; favorable enough to hit close to a 9, in fact. After all, it really seemed like another Portal , only with even more potential due to the combining complexities of four different dimensions. It lacked some of the spit and polish and it wasn’t as genuinely humorous or engrossing as Portal 2 , for instance, but still, the crucial puzzle elements appeared to be in place.
But then something happened. A realization crept into my consciousness and I was forced to conclude…well, you’ll see.
Visually, Quantum Conundrum looks great for a downloadable title. There’s a bit more richness and color in comparison to Portal ’s more stark, laboratory-type settings. It makes perfect sense, as we are indeed exploring a mansion in this adventure. The effects are minimal but well presented, coming to life with each dimensional shift and giving us various looks at the environment. It’s not meticulously designed or especially intricate but then, it doesn’t necessarily have to be. There are some minor frame rate issues, though.
The sound is another element that aspires to Portal standards and while it doesn’t necessarily fail, it doesn’t succeed, either. Professor Qwadrangle, the hidden narrator during your quest, is competent and well-voiced, even if he’s nowhere near as amusing as Wheatley. The soundtrack is forgettable, unfortunately, but some crisp effects attempt to make up for that lacking. Overall, the audio is clean and nicely implemented and I really do like the Professor, but the rest is a little too downplayed, even for a game with puzzle-solving at its core. There are a few nice ambient effects, however, which add some charm and cuteness.
The reason I keep comparing Quantum Conundrum to Portal should be obvious: Former Valve-r Kim Swift, who worked on the first Portal , championed this new digital effort at Airtight Studios. And history is hardly the only similarity, as this game plays very much like the award-winning puzzlers from Valve. The physics are about the same, we still have that outdated sliding-on-glass movement mechanics which unfortunately has a negative impact here (while it didn’t in Portal ; I’ll explain in a moment), and there are ingenious puzzles.
The latter is important to remember: The puzzle design in Quantum really is out of this world. Some of them are so deep and involved that one wonders if the cutesy, colorful environment is a good fit for such demanding gameplay. Towards the end of the game, you’re just staring in awe at the construction of another immense puzzle, which will require a ton of various solutions on your part, as well as a healthy assortment of platforming and reflex tests. What Airtight has accomplished with the puzzles alone is worthy of high praise. I can’t emphasize that enough.
But – and here’s the big “but monkey” – I refer you back to the start of this review, where I said I came to a realization that greatly altered my perception of this game with its elaborate and beautifully generated puzzles. The hint is actually in the previous paragraph…you see that part about “platforming and reflex tests?” That’s the problem. The story is kinda funny, the control is fine (to a certain point ), unraveling the complex puzzles is challenging and highly satisfying and yet, it’s all buried beneath too much frustration generated by the action elements.
In Portal , the entire experience was centered on the puzzles. There was very little in the way of actual platforming or reflex-based mechanics, despite the free-roaming first-person view. That was the correct way to do it. In Conundrum , you will start failing constantly because you didn’t hit the jump right, or you didn’t hit the exact right sequence of dimension shifts with the trigger buttons. At the end of the first set of chapters, just before you start up one of three generators, you have to go through a conveyer belt obstacle course that has you jumping and turning like mad. …mistake.
This is partly because of the outdated – and irritatingly slippery – physics, which only weren’t a problem in the Portal games because you simply didn’t need to use them so often, or with such urgency. Here, the developers just fell too much in love with these bouncy platforms that can send you hurtling skyward or across a big room. Because you’re being launched while standing on a box of some kind, it’s very difficult to know when exactly you should be jumping off that box, and the game never really tells you. That right there is an exercise in frustration.
And it just gets worse as time goes on. You’re constantly being asked to combine problem-solving skills with very quick action-oriented aspects, and the end result can be brutally difficult. Towards the end, when you’ve got a dimensional shift assigned to each of the four shoulder buttons, and you need to use all four to complete the puzzle, and you have to time each shift just right while considering about a half-dozen factors at once…well, you get the picture. So much of it is ingenious. It really, really is. But they should’ve let the puzzles stand on their own, and they should’ve created them without such a hefty platforming requirement.
On the plus side, there’s a huge amount of bang for your buck, provided you don’t send your controller hurtling through the TV. It will take quite a bit of time for you to finish and with a nifty level select option, you can return to any given puzzle and try to beat the goal time and the goal shift (i.e., you shift the dimensions only as many times as is absolutely necessary). You can also try to nab all the little “Awkward Noise” makers that are hiding throughout the game. And when you know exactly what to do, it can be fun to tackle the various goals.
I know this review makes it sound like Quantum Conundrum is a bad game, despite my attempt to put a lot of positive points and disclaimers in to counter the primary issues. I just hope people understand what I mean— It’s by no means a bad game and in fact, it has all the earmarks of a fantastic game, simply because it’s so similar to the godly Portal . But the latter titles were never frustrating, and you felt more pride than relief upon finishing one of the puzzles. Here, glimpses of that brilliance are evident, but we lose sight of them far too often.
The Good: Clean, appealing presentation. Good voiceover work. Relatively simple, straightforward control. Unbelievably elaborate and challenging puzzles. Lots of bang for your buck.
The Bad: A few frame rate issues. Forgettable soundtrack. Platforming/reflex-related elements are far too prominent and detract from the ingenious puzzles.
The Ugly: “…something…is going…to get…broken…&%#(%*”