Friday, June 22, 2012

Quantum Conundrum - Brain-Teasing In An Entirely Different Dimension

Puzzle games are the sort that I am not immediately attracted to, but one that I am willing to play. I feel this way especially about 3D puzzle games, or least the ones that emphasize puzzle solving rather than have it as a feature. Games like Catherine which utilize this as core gameplay in the third person are interesting, but it seems that puzzle gaming in the first person makes us exercise our brains harder; our own timing and environmental awareness are integral to solving the puzzle. So when I had first heard of Quantum Conundrum and the fact that it uses dimension-based puzzle solving, I was looking forward to it. In fact, I began playing as soon as my pre-order on Steam unlocked, simultaneously playing it with my equally interested brother. After my time with it, I feel very good about playing it, if a little disappointed.

In all aspects, the game draws many comparisons to Portal. This is inevitable due to Quantum Conundrum attempting the same sort of result, but also in part to the lead designer, Kim Swift, having worked on Portal 2 beforehand. Because of this, my discussion will mention Portal, but mainly talk about this game on its own terms.

The premise involves a 12-year-old boy who has visited the mansion of his uncle, the scientist/inventor Professor Fitz Quadwrangle. As the result of a failed experiment, the professor disappears shortly after the boy's arrival. To rescue him, the boy is allowed use of a special prototype device that allow him brief access to various alternate dimensions. This will enable him to solve the various rooms of the manor to activate the device that will hopefully accomplish this end goal. Unfortunately there isn't much of a narrative beyond that simple explanation. While we do get to find out more about Quadwrangle and a creature named Ike, that's pretty much the bulk of it. It's not as deep or thought out as Portal, though it seemed as though the potential was there for something more, especially when we are given at least some kind of mystery. The characters are likable and the writing is done properly enough to suit the existing dynamic, but the plot feels there for the ride, and the most disappointing part is that I found the ending to be a little underwhelming for what you go through to get to it.

The actual gameplay on the other hand is brilliant. You are given a glove called the Interdimensional Shift Device (ISD) that allows the user to access one of four different dimensions. In these dimensions, you can either make everything ten times lighter than normal (Fluffy), have objects be ten times heavier (Heavy), create an anti-gravity environment, or make time pass by at a twentieth of its normal speed (Slow-Mo). This concept is very original and, fortunately, is pulled off with the capability to keep the player going through the good times and the bad. The rooms of the Quadwrangle mansion are designed to introduce the player to each dimension at a good pace and display their unique traits in a way that gets you to think beyond traditional methods. Having to manipulate multiple dimensions at once then becomes a very thought intensive process at times and gets you to stretch your brain in new ways.

Fluffy Dimension
While the concepts may be gradual in introduction, the difficulty of getting through each room at times brings about frustration from multiple failures, but like any good game these failures are at the fault of the player and motivate you to try again and do it the right way. Quadwrangle even gives you a helpful tip once in a while, and these hints can be extremely valuable when the room seems daunting. Even so, at least a couple of the puzzles are annoyingly constructed and death is only inevitable in later stages, especially ones that involve incredibly precise midair platforming and quick reflexes in terms of both movement and dimension swapping. This is when the carefully placed checkpoints feel like a godsend. Indeed your brain will be flipped upside down, but the satisfaction of discovering the solution and going through the exit door leaves you with a sense of empowerment and is what makes the adventure worth going through.

Then there is the humor of this game. As I kept playing, I noticed how much the game tried to take on a playful and inviting atmosphere through comments made by Quadwrangle about himself and whatever paintings you come across. While plenty of the jokes are funny, a lot of them are also puntastic, sometimes based on a pop culture reference ("Everyday I'm Shovelin'" immediately comes to mind). I chuckled on occasion, but it didn't feel as clever or witty as the Portal series. While the good scientist has his presence known mainly through a disembodied voice, he can't beat the hilarity that comes from GLaDOS. Granted, Portal had an excellent writer, but on its own I feel that Quantum Conundrum could have tried just a bit harder; I feel there was some unused potential considering who they got as the lone piece of voice acting in the game aside from Ike's critter noises. Of course, I still found plenty of humor in the death screens; when you die, the game tells you what the boy will never live to see.

Of course the game does have really good sounds. I liked the music, which suits the playful mood well, and the voice acting. To elaborate on my earlier comment, the only character with a speaking role is Fitz Quadwrangle, voiced by none other than John de Lancie, best known for his role as Q in Star Trek (and perhaps Discord from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic). His talent brings a lot of personality to the character and helps the game feel more engaging as well, since the absence of it would probably have taken away from the tone this game wanted to have.

I do like the occasional brain-teaser, and Quantum Conundrum definitely delivers. Its unique gameplay mechanic is, for the most part, put to very excellent use and forces the player to think in ways that they never have before. While some may find the overall product a little less polished than it could be, it's still a rather interesting game that should not be ignored. Despite some frustration at times, the euphoric eureka moments you'll no doubt encounter will definitely be worth it in the end.

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