Publisher: Square Enix / Developer: Airtight Games / MSRP: $14.99 / ESRB: Everyone [Comic Mischief] / Played on: PC
Let’s just get this out of the way right now: Project Lead Kim Swift is not the only trait that Portal and Quantum Conundrum have in common. In fact, for everything in Portal, there’s a direct, 1-to-1 correlation in Quantum. Instead of GLaDOS’ disembodied voice guiding you through a series of puzzle-laden rooms, you have the goofy Professor Quadwrangle. Instead of Companion Cubes to weigh down switches you have Science Balls. And in place of a Portal gun you have the Interdimensional Shift Device (ISD) to navigate the game’s environmental puzzles. Quantum very explicitly invites itself to be compared to Portal. In a lot of ways, this makes it an easy game to recommend. Did you like Portal? Well, chances are you’ll enjoy Quantum. At the same time, the side-by-side snapshot also serves to highlight what you lose when you don’t have the backup of a developer like Valve.
There’s not really much of a story being told in Quantum Conundrum but it does plenty to establish a whimsical and wacky world. In Quantum, you play a 12-year-old who is dropped off for a day at your uncle’s house. As it turns out your uncle is Professor Quadwrangle, a kooky scientist inhabiting a mansion arbitrarily filled with complex, environmental brain twisters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Quadwrangle has managed to get himself lost in his overly complicated residence. And somehow making your way through these puzzles will help you find him.
As a premise, there’s plenty of charm to Quantum Conundrum but its execution often falls short. Quadwrangle’s voice is omnipresent throughout the game. In between tutorial-izing you through the game’s mechanics, you’ll often hear him recounting time traveling adventures involving his cute, gremlin-like sidekick, IKE, or explaining his arsenal of needlessly complicated inventions. Quantum occasionally hits the laugh-out-loud mark with its pseudo-science gibberish but more often than not it kind of comes off as awkward and stilted. Maybe it’s intentional but for an eccentric scientist, John de Lancie’s performance is confoundingly reserved. At points, I’m not sure if he knows if what he’s saying is supposed to be funny or not.
Not to belabor the comparisons, but Quantum subscribes to the same design philosophy that made Portal so successful: introduce a very simple, easy-to-understand mechanic and steadily build upon it in novel, unexpected ways. The previously mentioned ISD permits you to switch between four different dimensions, allowing you to manipulate and navigate Professor Quadwrangle’s puzzle-ridden mansion. For example, the Fluffy Dimension causes objects to weigh 10 times lighter and turn into soft, furry caricatures of themselves. Inversely, you’re also able to make objectives weigh 10 times heavier, slow down time, and reverse gravity. However, you remain unaffected by these dimensional shifts, allowing you to exploit them to your puzzle-solving benefit.
The objectives you’ll be attempting to accomplish as you make your way from room to room are pretty straightforward at first: avoid lasers, get up on high ledge, jump across gap, or put block on switch. Quantum’s strength is implementing and combining these objectives in interesting and ultimately unpredictable ways. For example, a fan pointing at a wall will allow you to build a makeshift staircase of Fluffy safes. Or a bunch of objects wildly careening across a large room can be slowed down and turned into platforms to jump across. It’s a thin line between creating puzzles that are challenging and rewarding (and not frustrating), and Quantum is almost always on the correct side of this line.
This being said, there’s a handful of moments that are distressing, as if Airtight was unsure about what’s appealing about their game. The game’s difficulty curve occasionally feels haphazardly implemented. Here and there poorly designed puzzles with throw you for a loop not because they’re too mentally taxing but because they require precise platforming which is both rarely fun in a first-person game and kind of counter to the smart puzzle design that makes Quantum great.
Maybe this is just because I’m coming off of the barrage of shotguns to the face and exposed elephant brains of E3, but there’s something really refreshing about playing a game that’s entirely comfortable being so… lighthearted. Quantum is bold and colorful and the varying visuals of the dimension switching is goofy in a kind of way that just about everyone can be comfortable with. This extends to Quantum’s surprisingly awesome soundtrack, which I guess I’d describe as whimsical elevator music. It’s low-key yet upbeat and is kind of the perfect music for racking your brain about puzzles, if such a music exists.
Not every decision in Quantum Conundrum feels like its made in service of the game’s strengths. And the wrapper that surrounds its mechanics can be hit or miss. But beyond those small issues, it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. It’s both cohesive and inviting, mechanically and aesthetically. And if you’re interested in a game with elaborate and interesting puzzles, you’re not likely to find something better this side of Portal.