Quantum Conundrum – Review

Platform | Release Date
PC | June 21, 2012
PS3, 360 | July 11, 2012
Developed by Airtight Games
Published by Airtight Games

The Pitch:

When you, as a young boy, are dropped off to visit your uncle, you notice something’s wrong. First, he’s not there to greet you. Second, there’s the explosion that happened right as you arrived. And third, the house seems to be even weirder than you remembered it.

Quantum Conundrum is a game of small problems. Despite lofty ideas and huge promise, a thousand small cuts bleed my enthusiasm for this title. For every moment of fun, there was a microsecond of extreme frustration and it all begins with something as small and simple as its genre definition.

Quantum Conundrum is a challenging platformer first and an excellent puzzler second. As a child visiting an eccentric scientists manor, you witness an experiment go awry. The player is thrust into a series of dangerous rooms that must be traversed to bring the power generators back online and discover the cause of the accident. Besides hopping and picking up and throwing light objects, the tools at your disposal allow you to alter properties of every item in the room by shifting between up to 5 dimensions – 4 special, 1 normal.

The puzzle rooms demand you perform all sorts of fancy tricks, such as turning a cardboard box into dense piece of metal to safely travel through dangerous lasers. Another common feat is to launch an object, slow down time, and then jump on and surf. Your degree of enjoyment will be directly proportional to your tolerance of platforming in the first-person perspective and having some solid twitch reflexes.

To help explain the extent that this tolerance is necessary let me discuss the elephant in the room. Quantum Conundrum is brought to you in part by Kim Swift of Portal fame, the game which is its best point of comparison. I feel like I might be in the minority here, but I was disappointed in Portal 2. I still loved it, but felt it wasn’t as strong as Portal. Some factor, be it focus testing, Steam tracking, or a magic 8-ball, convinced Valve that Portal required reflex skills higher than its average target audience. Some of the actions requested were too difficult for a large enough population of Portal’s players that the sequel removed nearly all of these maneuvers.

This made Portal 2 an entirely cerebral affair. Unfortunately, the player only carried as much momentum coming out of a portal as going into it, and without the twitchy looping of Portal, the Portal 2 player could only gain as much height as they dropped. This caused levels to expand in size in order to maintain moments of impressive flight, or introduced goo you had to paint everywhere before you could perform. The only puzzles I ever got stuck on in Portal 2 required me to zoom on some distant, hard to distinguish, single white square, and I wanted to bring back the condensed puzzle rooms of Portal. I prayed for a return to form that could provide level design where I could easily distill every variable without craning the horizon or running around large empty spaces between key points. Quantum Conundrum is my icon of “be careful what you wish for.”

I died a lot in Quantum Conundrum trying out experiments and expanding my understanding of the current puzzle. I died a lot in Quantum Conundrum because I didn’t think on my feet and as the situation changed didn’t adjust quickly enough to account for the puzzle’s new challenge. But I mostly died by missing or slipping off of a box. A majority of my defeats were not due to a lack of understanding but to failing to expertly execute the perfect plan. Judging the height and distance of objects floating by in slow motion is not easy, and Quantum Conundrum demands platforming between these objects frequently. If failure does not result in death, it certainly results in running back to the start, resetting the required variables, and trying again. Death and a quick reload can break your flow, but re-maneuvering boxes back to start positions is tedious.

It is fun to experiment the additional dimensions, but it is infuriating to miss the last jump in a sequence of a dozen jumps. The timing required is similar to Braid or Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, but without a rewind mechanic you have to rely on the (mostly generous) checkpoints and the Slow Time power. You get sent back to the beginning of the sequence instead of rewinding a few seconds and making slight alterations. I found myself repeating the initial jumps without error, only to fail near the end of the sequence repeatedly.

Then every once in awhile, I’d flub some simple part earlier and curse the game.

I would occasionally hold my breath and scan the corners of the screen for “Checkpoint!” text, confirming I didn’t need to get lucky and perform stellar a second time. This is behavior I exhibited in my Call of Duty 4 Veteran difficulty playthrough, not your average puzzle game. I did feel that the perspective limited my ability to platform, or that my abilities were limited from that perspective. As a 2D platformer or 3rd person perspective title like Sly Cooper, I could see myself controlling the situation. Instead, I die. Now I know how those original Portal players felt.

There was one positive to death and the loading screen: when you die, you get to see a funny Call of Duty styled quote, but instead of a random military quote generator, they tell you (the child character) a humorous list of things you’ll never get to experience now that you’re dead. The game is mostly funny, with at least as many laugh out loud moments as there are groaners. Most of the time, however, it is best described as just amusing. The spoken dialogue – delivered by a sarcastic, disembodied, hint-giving narrator – and the presence of a cute, helpful, mute companion draws further parallels to Portal. Maybe it isn’t fair to be matched against one of the best written game series, but Quantum clearly tries to step into the ring with Valve’s 500-pound gorilla. While the comedy never falters, the direct parallels necessitate comparison and the presentation lacks the polish of the Kim and Valve’s diamond.

Quantum may sound fine, but it doesn’t look like a million bucks. Despite five different filters to represent the different dimensions, the visuals are only adequate. The manor itself feels sterile; there is very little world-building or character to keep you interested. There isn’t a sense of mystery despite the main quest plotline being “try to figure out what happened” but it’s interesting that the title character is a child; the FPS perspective sits a bit lower than you’re used to. There are a few other touches, such as some funny books laying around, and the portraits positioned around the manor that change their appearance based on the dimension you are in. It’s cute, but it feels like well thought-out building blocks that weren’t assembled seamlessly.

Quantum Conundrum is a competent title with a questionable focus on platforming over puzzles. Valve needs to re-hire Kim and these devs, and they need to work together again. Portal was great due to the sum of their work; individually, their “dream” projects veer off with bad design choices. As for what you should do with your money? Try the demo. It will only get harder, but I’m inclined to recommend an original, faulty product over a safe, boring AAA title you’ve played before – any time, any place, any dimension.

About Aaron Phokal

Aaron is a staff writer for Splitkick.
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