Quantum Conundrum is the first project from Kim Swift since her work at Valve Software on the genre-defining Portal. Swift moved to independent startup Airtight Games to make games that would appeal to a more diverse audience. The result is a first person puzzler that is, indeed, more suited for younger audiences and families than the snide Portal. But unfortunately, the game is so frustrating to play, that I can't imagine a young gamer making it through Quantum Conundrum.
You play as a boy who visits his crazy inventor uncle--Fitz Quadwrangle. The uncle views the boy as a nuisance and doesn't want him around, until a lab accident cuts power to the mansion and traps Quadwrangle in an alternate dimension. For the rest of the game, the boy has to use one of his uncle's inventions, a glove that switches dimensions, to come to his rescue.
While the design framework of the game is Portal to a T, the new powers keep the game feeling fresh. Rather than the narrow focus of a gun, the powers in Quantum Conundrum affect the entire room. Thanks to your uncle's interdimensional super-glove, you can switch between four different dimensions at any time: A "Fluffy" dimension where everything is much lighter than normal, A "Heavy" dimension, a "Slow-motion" dimension, and a "reverse gravity dimension". Some rooms restrict you to only a few of these dimensions, so knowing how to use each of them in a certain situation is key to your success.
The dimensions all have their own unique look, and they are a lot of fun to play around with for the first few hours of the game. Sizing up a room, figuring out exactly how to use my powers to get to the other side, and then executing a perfectly timed plan, was ridiculously satisfying. For example, imagine switching to the fluffy dimension to pick up a safe, throwing it over a bottomless pit, slowing time down to jump on top of the just-thrown safe, and then reversing gravity back and forth to "surf" the safe over the pit. I felt awesome when I figured that out, but the above example only comes after dealing with some incredible frustration.
Quantum Conundrum has a rather large number of abilities for a game like this, and the controller layout shows it. The dimensions are activated by the 1, Q, 3, and E keys on the PC, and the four shoulder buttons on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. This sounds fine on paper, but gets unwieldy as the puzzles get more complicated.
The fact is, the controls of Quantum Conundrum did something to me that hasn't happened since the Nintendo 64 era: Under pressure, I couldn't remember which buttons to push. With so many events to trigger in such a short amount of time, I had to say the button combination to myself before I set a contraption into motion. Even then, by the end of my 7 hour journey, I was still making the room heavier when I intended to reverse gravity.
My other source of frustration was the wonky physics system. A game like this, where careful placement of objects is crucial to solving puzzles, requires a rock-solid physics engine, and Quantum Conundrum's just plain isn't. Objects will occasionally flip out the second they come in contact with a wall, shoot out from under you while you're standing on them, or get ripped from your hands even though you are holding on to them.
Any operation in Quantum Conundrum that involves physics will not produce the same result twice. In a game that encourages experimentation, and already has puzzles with some tricky timing requirements, this is an absolute dealbreaker.
Quantum Conundrum has a whimsical, cartoonish look that serves the overall atmosphere well. It's basically like walking through Disneyland's Toon Town. One detail I liked is that, since your avatar is a kid, the camera feels a bit lower to the ground compared to other first-person games.
For PC folks, there are pretty much zero graphics customization options. Even then, I still experienced hitches and pretty bad slowdown when loading new rooms. There aren't any loading screens during Quantum Conundrum, but in this case they come at too high a price.
More so than other puzzle games, the amount of fun you will have with Quantum Conundrum depends on how much trial and error you can stomach. Especially when the game robs success from you.
I had a smile on my face for the game's introduction and for a few hours after that, until the cumbersome mechanics and fit-inducing physics system started hampering my enjoyment.
Still, these types of first person physics puzzle platformers (whew!) are a rare breed. After an E3 where critics and consumers alike were complaining about samey modern military shooters and "ultra-violence," Quantum Conundrum sticks out of the crowd. It almost feels like an updated 2012 version of the educational science games that defined my childhood: Gizmos and Gadgets, and The Incredible Machine.
Unlike those games, which taught me about physics and engineering, the only lesson I learned from Quantum Conundrum is that if I ever try to stand on top of a cardboard box, I will probably fall into a bottomless pit and die.
I tried really hard to forget Portal and its sequel while playing Quantum Conundrum, thinking that a constant comparison to one of the most inventive games in the last few years would ruin the experience. But the design is so similar that, throughout my time with Quantum Conundrum, I was constantly reminded of how Portal did it all better.
I was eager to lavish praise on Quantum Conundrum for its feel-good atmosphere that breaks away from every other major game released so far this year. But whimsy can only get you so far when the game is so frustrating to play.
Kim Swift will make amazing games for family audiences at Airtight Games. But as a watered down version of Portal with a forgettable world and gameplay that makes you pound your desk in fury, Quantum Conundrum is a step backward.