Review: From the mind of Kim Swift – of Portal fame – comes QUANTUM CONUNDRUM, a first-person puzzler that sticks you in a series of test chambers and tests your mental mettle. Can Swift strike gold for a second time?
Quantum Conundrum’s premise is simple: you’ve been dropped off at your uncle’s house, the eccentric professor Fitz Quadwrangle, whose inventions are as dangerous as they are genius. Instead of kicking a ball around the backyard or getting out a game of Monopoly to entertain you, Quadwrangle likes to show off his latest inventions. But something goes wrong, and he manages to get himself trapped in an alternate dimension.
Not all hope is lost, though, as the intercom system still works, allowing him to guide you through his mansion. Conveniently, it’s made up of a hundred different test chambers containing all manners of things that a child really shouldn’t be allowed to play with.
Thinking with dimensions
It’s a very thin thread tying everything together, providing a strenuous reason as to why you’re completing all these puzzles. There’s never any attempt to tell a story of any depth and joke after joke falls flat leaving you all too aware that everything about the plot has been invented to give the different puzzles a backbone, rather than offer anything special of its own volition.
Moving around the nutty professor’s mansion (sadly there’s no sign of Eddie Murphy in a fat suit (don’t you mean thankfully? – Ed)) you get your hands on a prototype of one his inventions that just happens to be lying around: the Interdimensional Shift Device. Wearing it like a glove, it gives you the power to switch between dimensions and alter how the physical objects around you behave.
Apart from the Fluffy dimension, which reduces the weight of everything ten-fold, the Heavy dimension, the Slow-motion dimension and the Gravity dimension all speak for themselves as to how they allow you to manipulate physics around you. You’re immune to these shifts thanks to the glove itself, meaning your mass and speed always stay the same.
Sadly, the game starts slow and takes too long to introduce you to all the different dimensions – you’ll have figured out how each one works long before you unlock the next one, making the initial levels where you’ve only got Fluffy to play with a bit of a slog. After this, the game improves, and there are some genuinely devious puzzles once you’re forced to use the different shifting abilities in tandem.
As the game gets better, though, it also gets more frustrating. You’ll often figure out the solution to a puzzle quite quickly, but actually implementing your method proves to be the difficult part, as the game’s nature is half problem-solving and half a test of speed and reactions. It makes you doubt whether or not you’re actually completing the puzzle correctly and removes the satisfaction of figuring it out, souring your mental victory by not giving you a chance to actually enjoy it.
It isn’t helped by Quantum Conundrum’s eagerness to be a platform game just as much as it is a puzzle game, which leads to awkward sections of first-person jumping where failure often means having to start the entire puzzle again. It’s harsh and it’s difficult for all the wrong reasons, as you’re punished for misjudging jumps in unpredictable environments. Balancing this act while also having to shift dimensions is a muddled, trying process.
The physics are also just as unpredictable, with some objects required to complete puzzles not always behaving as they should. Sometimes even breaking completely and requiring a complete game restart on occasion.
One chamber dropped a number of boxes from the ceiling – boxes which are supposed to stack neatly upon one another forming columns, allowing you to trim them into stairs using a laser. But they simply tumbled to the ground every time I pressed the button to trigger their release.
Again, it makes you doubt your own thought-process and forces you to search for a different solution. Not because you’re wrong, but because the game isn’t as tightly designed as it should be, confronting you with far too many lamentable hiccups.
That’s not to say it’s all bad, as the potential of the dimensional shift is realised at points. Had the above puzzle worked properly the first time, it would’ve been a neat solution. And that’s the case throughout the game: there are plenty of puzzles where you can see the intended inventiveness of the design, but it’s just always marred by a degree of clumsiness.
Quantum Conundrum’s central concept – shifting dimensions to solve puzzles – is a solid one, allowing for some excellent mind-bending puzzles. Unfortunately, these are squeezed in next to what mostly feels like lazy – or at least clumsy – design. Something that is apparent in the environments and right through to the tacked-on story. Its focus on platforming also detracts from the actual puzzle solving, diminishing the usual sense of reward you get from cracking a tough mental nut, as you have to awkwardly fling yourself across yet another bridge of crates.
Quantum Conundrum, from Airtight Games and Square Enix, is out now for PC. An Xbox 360 and PS3 released is scheduled for July 11th.