Here’s a tip: if you’re leaving one of the most influential developers in the industry, it had better be to work on something as cool as Quantum Conundrum. In 2009, Portal creator Kim Swift left Valve to pursue a new IP with Airtight Games. We’re now happy to report her gamble has paid off - big time. Quantum Conundrum is a first-person puzzle-platformer made to stretch the cerebellum.
Yes, the superficial similarities to the Portal games are here: a protagonist trapped in a whimsical yet deadly environment, an ambivalent narrator, and puzzles that would make your physics professor weep tears of frustration and joy. But thanks to QC’s amusing art style, and entirely original gameplay mechanics, we wouldn’t dare call it a Portal rehash.
As the 12-year-old nephew of eccentric genius Dr. Fitz Quadwrangle (to whom you are something of a nuisance), your adventure begins in your uncle’s stately manor. The place is a pleasant mash-up of a Willy Wonka and Dexter’s Lab sensibility – big fluffy furniture, portraits of enigmatic relatives, and tubes piping bright yellow “science juice” every which way. A décor aesthetic we’ll call tasteful yet insane.
What little sense of normality the scene achieves is soon dissolved by a mysterious explosion, followed by an eerie glow. Over a PA system, your uncle’s disembodied voice informs you that he’s trapped…somewhere, and you’ll have to use his latest invention, the Interdimensional Shift Device (IDS for short) to rescue him from limbo.
The IDS has four reality altering powers – one to make things heavy, one to make things light, one to that inverts gravity, and one that slows down time. QC’s perfectly paced gameplay introduces these powers, and then lets you command them – all at a clip that rivals the learn-as-you-play methodology of the Portal games. The flawless rate at which the game amuses you with new concepts, ups the challenge, then moves on to something new, is its greatest asset among many notable ones.
Activating a power (or shifting dimensions, as Uncle Quadwrangle would put it) has an all-encompassing effect on your environment. Making things light via the fluffy dimension gives everything around you the soft and white sheen of a new mattress. The heavy dimension gives the room an armored look, and whatever power you use also affects the various family portraits hung around the mansion. Slow down time and you’ll see cobwebs hanging off the figures they portray, or the bottoms of their feet suspended in the air, after shifting into the gravity-inverting dimension. It’s a unique visual gag that never gets old.
Visually fresh as well as teasingly challenging, QC is a perfect blend of logistical problem solving and fast-paced platforming. The game’s every challenge has both a cerebral and a kinetic side: first you figure out what to do, then you have to execute correctly. Whether it’s jumping over laser beams or hopping from floating armchair to levitating safe, knowing what dimension to shift into and which conveyor belt to ride is only ever half the battle.
It does all this without relying on overly twitch-based gameplay, or the sort of first-person jumping puzzle hell of a nineties-era shooter. QC’s platforming feels natural, never forcing you to overcorrect for inertia or backpedal to stay on a surface once you’ve landed. There are also plenty of kindly-placed, frustration-averting checkpoints that keep you from repeating the game’s most taxing moments.
But when you actually want to repeat a puzzle, QC has you covered. The game has a level select menu that lets you revisit any challenge you’ve previously beaten. It also tracks your completion speed, how many powers you used, and any hidden collectibles you may or may not have grabbed. QC isn’t chock full of items and secrets, but it has enough to make things interesting. It’s a more than welcome addition to the Portal formula. Players who found those games lacking in replay value will appreciate this incentive to re-tackle a few puzzles.
One place, however, where the Portal games have QC beat, is in the story and humor department. QC’s brand of comedy is amusing, cute, but rather heavy on the whimsy. When it comes to pathos, most any video game villain pales in comparison to GlaDOS, but Dr. Quadwrangle feels like an especially stock characterization. Actor John de Lancie provides a lively voice performance, but this is still your basic cartoon nutty professor. Where he and his impish pet Ike should have motives and character arcs, QC simply doubles down on eccentricity. We know it’s tough to raise anything up to the storytelling bar that the Portal games established, but the game’s writing often felt like cake with too much frosting. QC’s non-sequiturs about graduate students eating ramen eventually had us rolling our eyes.
That’s it though! Gameplay-wise, QC is exemplary. Puzzles never feel “cheap,” and always rely on mechanics that were properly elaborated on, and finishing them consistently put a wry smile on our face, and a feeling of “why didn’t I think of that sooner” in our minds. If you had even a passing enjoyment with the Portal games, or any of the recent influx of indie puzzle-platformers, we can’t recommend Quantum Conundrum enough. It’s a work of craftsman-like quality going for a ridiculously low price point, especially since the game has two upcoming DLC drops planned. High whimsy content aside, fans of new, interesting, brain-bending challenges need to seek this one out.