Why? Because Science!
1. Make sweeping comparison to Portal
2. Name-drop Kim Swift
3. “If you enjoyed Portal, you'll probably like Quantum Conundrum.”
Thanks for reading my review, dudes! Now go follow me on the Twitterbooks!
Oh wait… you read that one already? Damn, guess I'm gonna have to earn my check this time…
Quantum Conundrum is a first-person puzzle platformer with a real underdog complex. Due to it being the brainchild of one of the original creators of Portal, and it also being the first substantial foray back into the genre since Portal more or less established it, the game is dogged by an unfair amount of expectation. You can feel the weight of this expectation constantly while playing the game, as it tries harder than necessary to convince you that it's worthy of sharing the genre with Valve's revelatory entry. Despite this self-consciousness, it manages to be a better puzzle platformer than the game that inspired it, while lacking its narrative teeth and memorable atmosphere.
Yup, I said it and I meant it: Quantum Conundrum is simply a better puzzle game than Portal. It took the first Portal almost the entire game before it dared to make you think creatively about how to use its core mechanic. This game starts asking that of you inside of 30 minutes and just keeps demanding more.
Clearly, the folks at Airtight know their audience. We've all played Portal. We don't need our hands held, and so the game refuses to do it. Quantum Conundrum teaches you each of the four special dimensions just enough to understand them but makes you figure out how to apply them on your own. Sure, it creates a risk of leaving players scratching their heads (and at times, you will), but the payoff is huge: a puzzle game that makes you feel like your IQ is 140 nearly every time you figure something out from beginning to end.
Another key way in which it differentiates itself is by making the solution only half of the struggle. You still have to execute said solution, a task that's often more challenging and rewarding than in "that other game". Forget using one mechanic to solve a puzzle—that's for NYU dropouts! Real Ivy League superstars juggle up to 4 at once, manipulating matter density, gravity, and time itself in rapid succession, all while deftly hopping from couches to coffee tables en route to their goals.
While precision jumping and the first-person perspective aren't necessarily a match made in heaven, the platform spacing is tuned to perfection, removing virtually all the guesswork and frustration. During my entire run, I don't think I ever died from a jump and thought “If only I could see my feet…"
This combination of brilliantly conceived puzzles and challenging platforming come together to create a play experience that is constantly demanding, rewarding, and remarkably enjoyable. Where Quantum Conundrum loses points, though, is in its presentation, which tries so hard to steal Portal's thunder that it becomes distracting at times.
Visually, the game is fine. The geometry is simple and you don't have much to look forward to art-wise but a lot of primary colors, household furniture, and an occasional robot. The portraits on the wall of your Uncle's pets and inventions are cute and change appropriately to the dimension you invoke, but start becoming stale after long. It all looks like something Tim Burton would create on a sober day—colorful and almost surreal, yet tame and ultimately forgettable.
My real presentational gripe is with the way story and humor are heavy-handedly applied in an attempt to court the “cake is a lie” cultists (of which I count myself among). John DeLancie of Star Trek fame was cast as your less than benevolent Uncle, whose voice guides you through his mansion where one of his experiments has gone awry. Science ensues, followed by 6-9 hours of jokes that could have been written for The Big Bang Theory.
Look, I don't need a surrogate GLaDOS. Your story doesn't need some sort of “twist” shoehorned in. Stop reminding me how nerdy and clever you can be. I don't care. Your game is a near flawless iteration on what came before it, and it's a joy to play. That's really all that matters.
It's not that the humor isn't clever, it is. The whole game has a playful quirkiness about it that can actually be quite endearing at times. But at a certain point it becomes too much, and while it never directly interferes with gameplay, I was totally fed up after the umpteenth Lost reference. If this game were a little kid, I would grab it, shake it and say, “I know it's a tragedy that your older brother will always be more famous, but get over it!”
It frustrates me when a game isn't content with simply being a very good game and instead tries to be something it doesn't need to be. In many ways, Portal needed the menace and the creepy atmosphere to compensate for the fact that it was more of a concept than a game. With their second installment, they used that groundwork and crafted something more mechanically substantial to stand up to the world their players were already invested in. This game exhibits that sort of meaty gameplay substance from the start, making its constant stream of half-funny nerd culture references feel like wasted breaths.
Still, it's only because it distinguishes itself so well in the gameplay department that its overzealous attempts at humor seem unnecessary. While Quantum Conundrum might owe its existence to Portal, it stands in the shadow of no game. Anyone who enjoys a good puzzle owes it to themselves to play this one.