Published on July 3rd, 2012 | by Gary Kirwan
Playing it Safe: Quantum Conundrum
When life presents you with physics based puzzles, you should always throw a safe through a window. Obviously. We’re not talking stuffy classroom physics though. Not a mention of Snell’s Law to be had, nor a sign of tweed blazers, with or without leather elbow patches. Your teacher wouldn’t approve.
I feel I should begin with a disclaimer, there will be mention of a certain portal-based game. It’s difficult not to really, and I admit I’m going to make no effort to avoid it in another triumph for laziness.I present to you the facts; Quantum Conundrum comes from the clearly talented mind of Kim Swift, creator of the afore-alluded-to Portal, now working at Airtight Games.
Featuring an omni-present and sarcastic toned narrator berating and bemoaning your efforts at first-person platforming. Each level is a familiar journey from A to B, it has it’s mother’s eyes. That’s okay though, no need to panic, why re-invent the wheel when you can just add three more. Voila! A car!
So Quantum Conundrum takes the format created with the Portal games and develops on the premise. Instead of the ability to pass through multi-coloured wormholes you must utilise four dimensions, each with its own distinctive properties. First up, the fluffy dimension, turning everything into a plush version of its former self. Next is a heavy dimension which (you guessed it) makes everything heavier and more dense. Mastering these will unlock slowing time, and finally anti-gravity, which makes everything not bolted to the ground float to the ceiling. If your teachers happened to tell you about these in class they were either a game design visionary or stark-raving mad. I leave that dilemma to your merciless judgement.
Gaining abilities as you progress creates a learning experience not unlike a curve, should you feel the need to assign shapes to things. Some rooms limit your options, requiring each power in turn to be repaired to ultimately escape from the room. Only one dimension change can be used at a time, and therein lies the essence of the game. Placing a fluffified (word creation at its best) safe on a fan will see it float upward, slowing time when it reaches the necessary height will create a handy platform. But doing so loses the fluffiness and slowly fall back to earth, gravity being the arch nemesis of all platform-leaping games characters. The game’s at its best when you have access to all four dimensions. The “Aha!” moment that all puzzle games strive for hits its most gratifying when you stumble across the perfect combination of physics-altering trickery to reach the exit, and the more dimensions needed to achieve the goal the more satisfying the pay-off.
Being a small studio, Airtight don’t have triple-A budgets to throw around, and wisely chose to focus on the core of the game (the physics based puzzlement for those not paying attention) rather than presentation. Graphically the game leans towards the Saturday morning cartoon side of things. Scenery and characters are heavily exaggerated and the palette could be taken from a box of crayons, suitable for three years and under. That’s not to say it’s ugly, you won’t feel the need to go fooling around with anti-aliasing or calibrating gamma synths or other technical jargon I don’t understand, but it’s really not integral to your enjoyment.
I did find myself at times getting annoyed at having to run down yet another cut-and-paste hallway between rooms, until I realised they were the loading screens – a revelation which I admit took far to long to arrive. I’m going to call that a success. Your little book of Sudoku doesn’t pause for twenty seconds between pages so why should your puzzler?
Difficulty varies from the extremely easy, to the tolerable side of frustratingly devious. I would have liked a more consistent spread, but it’s not so disparaging as to be a distraction. The lack of load screens helps, even if you breeze through a room you’ll be at the next one almost immediately. There were also occasions when I reached the exit and felt I’d used perhaps the least optimum combination of shifts to get there, a mark of any great puzzle experience. The notion of multiple solutions (regardless of whether that’s true or not), along with being able to replay any level, adds some replay value for anyone obsessive enough to take up the challenge.
Everything from the graphical style to the difficulty lends Quantum Conundrum an appearance of family friendliness, something that a parent could play alongside a child with no awkward explanations why Daddy had to shoot all those Russians. This is somewhat at odds with the script however. Some of the narrator’s comments lean toward the black end of the comedy spectrum and you play the part of a young boy who often, and repeatedly dies. In case you weren’t aware of your demise, each death screen features an example of something the 10-year old protagonist will now never experience – for example “Growing old enough to realise you are not special” or “Eventually dying of unrelated causes many, many years from now, content in your old age”. Treading the line between a truly black comedy, and being accessible to a younger audience, without committing entirely to either.
The writing itself is also a bit hit-and-miss, some sharp one-liners with others falling flat like a safe on the wrong side of gravity’s cruel embrace. The voice acting may be partly to blame, sometimes sounding like a first reading, whiffing a perfectly good joke. I couldn’t help feel that if you’re going to have a narrator at all, the dialogue needs to be as polished as possible, particularly if it’s the only speaking role. A wealth of content can be brought to bare in just the quality of that performance. Bastion jumps to mind as a good example.
So is it worth the price of admission? I certainly think so. Of course the fact that the game only costs £9.99 on Steam helps. You’ll get a weekend of enjoyment from a well-crafted game and still have enough pocket-change to order a pizza and alcoholic beverage of your choice. There’s also a £13.99 option which includes the soundtrack and two upcoming DLCs when they’re released, if that kind of thing floats your gondola. And feel free to use “fluffified” as a verb. My gift to you, Royalty free.