Portal is a tough act to follow. Portal 2 is even more so. So what do you do if you were the lead designer for Portal and decided to escape the comfortable confines of Valve to make video games? Well, if you were Kim Swift, the aforementioned lead designer of Portal, you’d release something akin to 2007’s first person puzzler smash hit. Except, hopefully, something better. Enter Quantum Conundrum.
The game has you in the role of a rather prolific scientist's nephew. On one of your many visits to his abode, you find that he’s trapped in a parallel universe but he can still hear and see you, which ends up being a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it. It’s a campy affair rife with hilarious dialogue that bests most episodes of The Big Bang Theory. With a slew of science jokes that might just go over the head of most gamers, it can get a bit too much. But for those who “get it”, it is a blast to playthrough.
The quintessential mad proffessor
In addition to the potential for non-inclusive humour, all of the action in Quantum Conundrum takes place in Quadwrangle Manor, a huge estate owned by the scientist. It’s a rather colourful place – a far cry from the sterile “testing environments” of the Portal series – and makes for an interesting change of scene. For reasons you will soon realise, parts of the manor refuse to obey the laws of physics and it is up to you to rectify these anomalies and rescue your uncle.
The game is structured smartly. During your adventure in the manor, you’ll come across obstacles like lasers, toxic substances and bottomless pits that try to end your life in amusing ways. The goal is to restore each area to its natural state and get to the exit door. This would require you to manipulate the objects present in the areas with a pair of gloves your uncle helps you acquire. These let you slow down or reverse time and make things heavier or lighter. However, in order to mess around with gravity in a given area, you need to ensure that you find the missing battery of each room and place it in its appropriate container. Doing so allows you to use your gloves in that area.
Where Quantum Conundrum really shines, though, is in its pacing. You never find it too difficult or too easy. Most games take it upon themselves to be on either extreme with either exacerbating difficulty or feeding you with excessive hints and pushover AI. Here, you’re introduced to an area’s core mechanics and that is it. No further handholding, which allows you to solve each puzzle at your own pace. In doing so, Airtight Games has managed to strike a balance where the end result is a tremendous sense of satisfaction without forcing the user to do things in a specified manner.
Additionally, the controls are pitch perfect. Traversing across the abnormally-strewn rooms of Quadwrangle Manor is rarely an issue. Be it hopping across platforms or aiming, you’ll never find yourself at odds with the control scheme regardless of your chosen format. Aside from an odd frame rate glitch when you enter a room for the first time on the PS3 or Xbox 360, this is one of those rare titles that play somewhat well across platforms.
With an approach that could be described as the polar opposite to that of Aperture Labs, this is a wildly entertaining game that will keep you on your toes until the very end. It feels like a breath of fresh air in a genre that’s been dominated by one series. It might lack the dark humour, legacy or themes but it makes up for all that with a wacky premise. It goes to show that you can have a title that’s on the opposite end of the spectrum from the top dog in terms of tone and presentation, but doesn’t stop on delivering with regard to execution that is sterling, to say the least.
Though the gameplay and mechanics might be similar to Portal, Quantum Conundrum’s quirky presentation ensures that there’s enough room for two first-person puzzlers to vie for your attention and your wallet. But the game isn’t without its cons – the ending is a little less than satisfactory. Without spoiling much, it follows the usual trend of cliffhangers wherein you’re set up for the all-but-obvious sequel. Much like most video games nowadays, it seems as if Airtight Games wasn’t satisfied with conjuring up an ending that doesn’t have its fair share of uncertainty, vagaries and unanswered questions.
…I'm going to try science!
Also, the cartoony graphics aren’t as detailed as they should be. Throw in the fact that a lot of the game’s art is reused and the final product is a game that gets a rather boring feel pretty quickly; you’ll soon realise a lot of the environments look the same. Furthermore, the constant voice of your uncle gets old quite fast and his jokes start sounding hackneyed and boring. What's more, the five hours of gameplay time seems a little sparse. Though you do have leaderboards to keep you busy, there’s nothing too substantial apart from the main campaign.
All in all, if you’re looking for your next physics-manipulating fix, you can’t go completely wrong with Quantum Conundrum. There’s enough in terms of humour, plot and gameplay to keep you engrossed. Just enough, mind you.
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