Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Quantum Conundrum

Post-Launch Review
Quantum Conundrum (PC)
Developer: Airtight Games
Released: July 2012
Played: story complete in 5 hours; Desmond Debacle DLC complete in 1 hour; IKE-aramba! DLC incomplete


In this first-person puzzle game, a twelve-year-old kid (you) is dropped off by his mom to visit his eccentric mad-scientist uncle, Professor Quadwrangle. When you arrive at the mansion, the Professor is nowhere to be found, but he can communicate with you by radio. The Professor tells you he's trapped in a mysterious pocket dimension, and you'll have to rescue him. Using the IDS device - a glove that can alter the very fabric of reality - you'll need to use the fluffy, heavy, slow, and reverse gravity dimensions to make your way through the mansion and reactivate the building's generators to save your not-so-loving uncle.

At Launch

Quantum Conundrum was fairly well received, earning average review scores in the high seventies (76%-79% depending on platform). Reviewers generally called it a fun puzzle game with some interesting elements. Comparisons to Portal were very common; some making the comparison to Quantum Conundrum's detriment, and others calling the similarities a good thing. The ending was not very well received, with complaints that it came out of left field and left plot threads unresolved.

Post Launch

I'm having a little trouble finding news on updates, but it seems that the leaderboards for fastest times and fewest shifts were added free sometime post-launch. I also recall plenty of complaints about physics bugs which seem to have been pretty much all resolved.
Two DLC packs were released: The Desmond Debacle and IKE-aramba!

If you've played Portal, you'll find it impossible not to compare it to Quantum Conundrum. The game's structure is the same: a silent protagonist making their way through a series of puzzle rooms, guided (and sometimes harassed) by an observer. Which is weird, when one of the designers worked on Portal and (according to Wikipedia) consciously tried to distance Quantum Conundrum from Portal to avoid that comparison. The theme is different, the core puzzle mechanics are different, but the structure is identical.
Unfortunately, Quantum Conundrum (henceforth referred to as QC) takes a beating from the constant comparisons to Portal. Portal's labs, purpose-built for testing, allow me some suspension of disbelief regarding the layout - especially since the elevators between each level free the layout of any continuity or space issues between levels. QC is set in a mansion, though, a place that I expect to have a certain level of real-world logic - but the mansion is bare and makes very little sense in its layout and construction. The only furnishings are tables, chairs, and bookshelves, along with the Professor's science gear. Rooms are connected in linear sequence by very long, empty, frequently duplicated hallways in a fashion that makes no sense at all for a residence, and when trying to picture the wings from the outside I can only imagine a massive twisty T-shaped building (which is not how the mansion appears in silhouette or paintings). The game does state that Quadwrangle has made many modifications to the mansion, but visually these seem to be just the pipes and machinery, with no changes to the mansion's basic layout.
Professor Quadwrangle is kind of fun, and voiced very well by John de Lancie (who you may know as Q from Star Trek: TNG or even Discord from My Little Pony: FIM), but he's not written as a very sympathetic character. Specifically, he's kind of an ass to his nephew (you). Portal's GLaDOS is condescending in a darkly funny way when she says something like "that was not terrible", but Quadwrangle says it he's just being a dick to a twelve-year-old. Especially weird is his lack of help and advice and apparent inability to take things at all seriously, considering that you're supposed to be rescuing him. de Lancie does a good job with what he's given and almost rescues the character, but a lot of Quadwrangle's lines are just statements of fact or oddly random quips which don't leave much room for personality.
QC also manages to duplicate Portal's only weakness: puzzles that are overly dependent on very precise timing or reflexes. Some of the rooms are less about solving the puzzle and more about repeating a challenging sequence of button presses until you get it exactly right.

Despite all this, if you can put Portal out of your mind for a while, Quantum Conundrum has got some clever and fun stuff going on. The mansion may be pretty bare, but one benefit to the bareness is that important puzzle elements, such as doors or circuits, are well highlighted and easy to find. The use of uneven lines gives the mansion a bit of quirk and even helps direct your attention to some of the less obvious puzzle elements (such as the exit in a huge, curved late-game room).
One of the only types of decoration in the mansion is paintings, and these are hilarious. When you encounter certain specific paintings, the Professor reveals a tidbit of family history, his own adventures, or his experiments, depending on the painting's subject. The paintings themselves tend to be a little silly, and one is even kind of sad - a portrait of you, the nephew, sitting on your luggage looking depressed. What makes the paintings really great, though, is that they change based on the dimension you have active - in other words, each painting is actually 5 paintings. The particular active dimension has a different effect: fluffy dimension might make a cat into a giant puffball or put a pink bunny suit on the Professor; slow dimension makes the painting subject check a watch or timepiece; reverse gravity traps the subject at the top of the picture frame, as if they're falling up.

Oh, and about those dimensions... maybe it's time I actually discussed the gameplay!
QC does a pretty good job of introducing you to the various effects of each dimension before it throws something complicated at you. For example, when you're introduced to your first dimension - fluffy - the shift is on a timer, and all you need to do is put a safe on a switch. You quickly find that you can't lift the heavy safe normally, but in fluffy dimension it becomes light enough to pick up and throw, and not heavy enough to trigger the weight-based switch.

Learning how the dimensions work is one of the few times the Professor will actually give you advice. One of the trickier elements is that moving objects retain their horizontal momentum when you reverse gravity, so by toggling back and forth between normal and reverse gravity, you can make a thrown object "fly" across gaps. And since the IDS protects you from the effects of other dimensions, you can then ride that object across the gap.
Working out how the dimensions interact with each other is the key to solving QC's puzzles. I need to make this safe lighter so that I can move it... but when I let go the fan will blow it away. I can make it heavy again, but I need to move a second safe too, and changing dimensions affects the whole room, so that first safe will get blown away when I pick up the second. How do I get the first safe to stay in the right spot while I move the second? Or am I going about this the wrong way, and I need to find a way to move both safes at the same time? Dilemmas like this are QC's strength and the most unique aspect of its gameplay.
The ending is kind of interesting but also a bit of a mess. The game comes just short of directly stating that (highlight for spoilers) the various dimensions have... escaped? and are affecting the entire world? and Professor Quadwrangle will have to set things right. But there was a dropped subplot about the science juice: a mystery builds about it being organic and flammable and coming from a mysterious source and it's somehow responsible for the trouble via the flooding... but that's just dropped. And so is any explanation about IKE, the weird creature who doesn't seem entirely safe or friendly.
And how about that DLC? Well... it's OK. The DLC adds more levels, but there's no context or Professor voiceover, and nothing about the main game's ending. There's no motivation to solve these new puzzles other than solving puzzles. That's fine if you like puzzles - there's some new twists on elements you thought you'd mastered - but it kind of makes the levels feel pointless and disconnected. One thing I did find neat, though, is the "boss battle" at the end of the Desmond Debacle. I don't want to say much more than that, but yeah, there's a "boss battle".

Recommendation: play it, I guess.

Quantum Conundrum is a clever and fun puzzle game that shares a few too many similarities with Portal, and falls short in the comparison (though if you've never played Portal you should have fun). That said, the gameplay is different enough that Quantum Conundrum is worth a try. The game is strong when you're actually puzzling out a puzzle, with the interplay between dimensions adding some interesting twists and challenges.
Regarding the DLC, I'd recommend waiting until you've played the core game. If you like it and want more, pick up the bonus levels, but be aware that they're just more levels without any new story or voice lines.

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