Because it’s not something that should hinder us and because I would have wanted to get it into the background of the discussion as soon as possible, I’m just going to come out and say it: Quantum Conundrum reminds me very much of Portal. Some would argue maybe too much.
Over its course, I constantly tried not to take that in a negative way, even more, partially knowing what to expect of it before its vague introduction, I forcefully and stupidly tried to avoid making comparisons. Like that would have any importance over the quality of the puzzles or the pace, calibrated or not, of overcoming them. But I had to wave the white flag right at the end of it all, once I heard the Credits song.
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Yes, Quantum Conundrum also includes a cheerful tune as a garnish for the conclusion, a song which upon hearing only made me let out a disappointed “Oh, no…”. Not only because it would be hard for it to stand next to the magnificent “Still Alive”, but also because it was very clear in that moment that I can’t (and there’s no helping purpose in it anyway) pretend anymore that these two games don’t share any direct influences.
What is certain, and impossible to avoid from the start, is that the Portal influences – or, knowing its pedigree, resemblances – are big and are present in all its constituent parts, from the not so elaborate story, through the way in which objects disintegrate and into the mostly charming presentation.
It could be that for Kim Swift, who was also Lead Designer on Portal, Quantum Conundrum is just the next evolutionary step in the continuous escape from the tyranny of puzzles or maybe this game is made from bits (stylistic, design-wise) that didn’t fit into the first one and whose time has finally come.
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And so, we are again in the shoes of a silent protagonist who is in grade school this time, left by his mother at the door of uncle Fitz Quadwrangle, scientist and inventor, full of sometimes exaggerated humor. It’s not the first time this is happening, but only now something has gone terribly wrong in the professor’s activity and he got stuck in a pocket dimension, from which he can still observe absolutely everything that you do.
Because he doesn’t remember how he got there, it becomes your responsibility to find him and after you take your luggage into the mansion, you enter the professor’s office where you’ll find a device that will allow to travel through four other dimensions, all of them necessary for solving the sequence of spatial enigmas that will soon engulf you.
Of course, the mansion – which, judging by the size of its interior space is spread over several kilometers, horizontally and/or vertically – could have just as well been a lunar, subterranean or any other kind of base, because its only purpose is to be host for the puzzles. In narrative terms, there is no really clear purpose for which to explore its rooms and corridors.
All the essential facts you that know at 5% of the game you also know at 90%, but it’s enough as it is. If your own enthusiasm and curiosity for the next puzzle are not enough, a more elaborate story won’t keep anyone in front of the screen for longer anyway.
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Sadly, the learning curve was probably created by someone that was also solving quantum physics problems at the same time. The first additional dimension you gain access to, called Fluffy, that makes every object lighter, is introduced very smoothly, with puzzles that gradually grow in difficulty.
But all of a sudden you get the first puzzle of the Heavy dimension – in which objects have 10 times their weight – which is not at all hard as it is uselessly complex, interrupting what until then was a perfect introductory learning rhythm.
You have to put three cardboard boxes on three pressure platforms – out of six, which upon activating will gift you with three sets of two boxes each that you have to jump on to reach somewhere higher. But you don’t control when the dimensions change and when the cardboard boxes become heavy, so if you didn’t get the three correct platforms, you’ll have to wait until dimensions change to be able to move the boxes again.
And the whole sequence can take several minutes, too many for the first puzzle that introduces one of the game’s major mechanics. The learning curve does stabilize eventually, somewhere around half the game, with puzzles varying in difficulty. Sometimes smoothly, other times not so much.
Although the five dimensions (the one considered normal plus the four additional ones) are the game’s… center of gravity, it’s surprising that you gain access to the last one, which reverses the gravitational direction, somewhere fairly late. Portal really understood how you can give the impression that you have all the necessary tools for puzzle solving (and thus quickly making you maintain interest) by giving you access to the main toy – the Portal Gun – very early on and then gradually increasing puzzle difficulty with only external elements.
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In Quantum Conundrum you’ll watch an icon for about 70% of the game, an icon you know represents something major in the mechanics – the last available dimension – but which you don’t have access to. Taken separately, the steep learning curve and the fact that you know a major gameplay element is not available for a very long wouldn’t be a problem, but together they contribute to a sometimes abrupt puzzle trail.
And after this, the same quantum physics hobbyist probably had something to say in the construction of the game’s internal logic. I don’t know if this is intended or not, but the cardboard boxes will retain their fragility even when you interact with them in the Heavy dimension. A big number of puzzles will have you jumping or balancing on objects and I understand why you’re not able to stand on a cardboard box, but why can’t I do it even after it has transformed into a block of metal?
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With this we also get some… minor holes in the design of some puzzles, probably born out of the laziness of reconstructing certain sections of them. In the case of at least two puzzles, the game needs to cheat on your behalf to supply you with the necessary objects after you have passed some laser beams that impede your progress.
Another unpleasant element in the design is the fact that at least one puzzle can become unsolvable if you get in a certain place without any objects, the only solution being reloading a save, a problem I never encountered in Portal. And since we’re on the subject of checkpoints, I think that the designer who placed them should be… admonished. Severely. And repeatedly.
Because it’s amazing how deficient so many of them are placed. If, Heaven forbid, you get into a puzzle that “forces” you to retry it for 15 times (it happened to me) there’s a very high chance that you’ll listen to uncle Fitz repeating the same line every time after reloading. And, be warned, the puzzles are generally split into sections of two and if you quit the game before finishing the entire section, you’ll have to completely restart it, even if you already solved its first puzzle.
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But none of these problems, small enough considering the big picture, don’t bother and did not take so much from the general impression as the game’s insistence to base so many puzzles on the need for precision jumping from place to place. In 2012, Quantum Conundrum does not comprehend or is able to solve the problem of platforming sequences in a first-person game.
The problem is simple: we still don’t have an optimal way of combining first-person cameras with the edges of objects in a virtual space. Yes, Mirror’s Edge and Crysis 2 do a great job at it, but that’s because at the center of their mechanics lie parkour elements solidly implemented.
For a game like this, it’s more appropriate if irritation comes from the mental incapacity of solving a puzzle. You can ask a friend or the public by way of YouTube, but when you have to launch an object in the air, go into the Heavy dimension so it can pass laser beams, slow down time (the third dimension), jump on said object, balance on it and finally try to position yourself so as to be able to jump on the next object or platform, and you miss right at the end because the visual perspective doesn’t combine well with edge detection… it’s not very pleasant and your nerves might have a very bad opinion about your so-called relaxing activities.
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Yet paradoxically or not, even with all these bruises to the design’s knees, Quantum Conundrum is still an excellent puzzler. Actually, the thing that might hurt it the most is not the bundle of personal missteps, but the fact that it will be inevitably judged alongside Portal.
Even the so-called narrative context is one almost ostentatiously similar to the one in Valve’s game. Again, maybe all these are just Kim Swift’s inclinations toward such stories, in which scientific fervor has gone haywire, but it will be hard for Quantum Conundrum to get out of Portal’s shadow as long as it doesn’t try to find a more conceptually personalized space.
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As I mentioned in the beginning, the whole adventure unfolds under the careful supervision of uncle Fitz Quadwrangle, who generally scolds, laughs at you more or less overtly or offers you clues, with different grades of clarity.
A very strange thing regarding the jokes is the professor’s insistence of frequently attracting attention on how successful his punchlines are. Quantum Conundrum is the first game (at least for me) in which you’re not only very frequently obligated to listen to references about your current situation, but you also have to bear remarks such as “Isn’t so that my joke, which was actually an allusion or clue for your situation, was extraordinary?”. It’s like the designer who wrote the jokes was afraid that players might perhaps be a little… limited and might need to be stuffed with clues. Including some regarding other clues.
A moment that is worthy of a sigh comes sometimes in the second half, when the professor makes a bored remark about how repetitive the visual interior of the mansion is. Yes, he is perfectly right, the rooms look exactly the same all the way to the end, with few variations, and this isn’t one of the game’s selling points. So why exactly are you explicitly mentioning this? Thankfully, the jokes are mostly of fine taste and make a substantial contribution to the game’s character.
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Just like a scientific experiment with paradoxical premises, Quantum Conundrum is a very solid collection of puzzles, constantly pierced by minor, but annoying problems. Crossing the dimensions is done very smoothly, without any slowdowns whatsoever and it’s absolutely a pleasure to go into the one that slows down time and observe, sometimes fascinated, the way in which objects fly and interact with each other.
But I wonder if anyone noticed how tiring the video filters for three of the dimensions can become for the eyes, especially if Bloom is activated. Yes, before starting the game you are warned about the dangers those prone to epilepsy are subjecting themselves to, but really, instead of a writing a warning on the screen they could have adjusted the filters to be less problematic, making a necessary compromise between presentation and functionality. But the design remains faithful, messing, for the billionth time, a game to which I sometimes wanted to award the highest mark.
I don’t know how many of these problems will be patched or even if something is intended in that direction, but Quantum Conundrum could have been more than just a simple pretender to Portal’s throne. Its partial failure comes especially from the fact that what seems like a very solid experience is permanently sabotaged by a rough design.
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But yes, I do recommend it to anyone passionate about spatial puzzles that require switching dimensions (and more). Some of its shortcomings, like the platforming sequences, could be regarded as relative, because some people will be better than others at appreciating distances and the moments at which they need to react.
What’s more, Quantum Conundrum is one of those games that you can enjoy with the entire family and can be shown to all the relatives and teachers who still believe that video games are only comprised of explosions and violence. And if you can ignore, as much as possible, how much it has in common with… that other game, it will only get better.