Few would argue against Portal being an engaging puzzle experience. The dark humor mixed in with some brain-teasing situations made for a game that, in some people's eyes, nearly overshadowed the rest of The Orange Box. Few thought that a first-person puzzle game would be viable, but that attribute made it even more spectacular. Many people expected the first post-Portal game from Kim Swift, one of the creators of the series, to follow in the same vein, and that's exactly what she did with Quantum Conundrum, which takes the same ideas but adds a nice little twist.
In the lighthearted story, you play a young boy who's visiting your uncle Fitz Quadwrangle, an eccentric inventor who's only mildly excited about your visits. During your previous visits, you were always met at the entrance by your uncle, who often showed off his latest inventions. This time, however, you find him communicating with you through the mansion's PA system as he's busy working in the lab on his latest invention. Just when you go to meet him, a blast ripples through the house, and while you're left unharmed, you've discovered that your uncle is trapped in a pocket dimension. With him still able to monitor your progress through the mansion's security system, you grab the spare Interdimensional Shift Device glove from the lab and set out on a journey through various hazards to turn on the generators and rescue your uncle.
Those familiar with puzzle games from this perspective will be familiar with how things work. The objective in just about every room is to find the exit without worrying about time constraints. The way to the exit isn't exactly straightforward, so you'll spend most of your time manipulating switches and objects as well as avoiding hazards. Just like the co-op sections in Portal 2, you'll have four wings of the house filled with these types of rooms, and the end of each wing culminates in a generator room, where the energy source needs to be activated so you can come one step closer to rescuing your uncle.
The hook comes from dimensional shifting, which you'll often use to manipulate the objects around you to get through obstacles and activate switches. There are four dimensions you'll shift through, each presented to you in a well-paced manner. The fluffy dimension turns everything into clouds, letting you effortlessly lift even the heaviest of objects. The heavy dimension, as the name suggests, turns everything into solid steel that is impervious to lasers. The reverse gravity dimension allows any object that's not nailed down to float upward while the slow dimension slows down time to a crawl.
Though your body remains immune to the dimensional shifts, everything around you is affected. The trick comes from the fact that no other object can share the exclusive properties of one dimension when a shift to another one occurs. Thus begins the delicate juggling act of knowing which objects are more useful in one dimension and rapidly switching to a different dimension to properly use said objects while avoiding their destruction. It makes for some rather clever puzzles and humorous moments. Seeing clouds stick to a wall due to air gusts, for example, is always fun to see, as is shielding yourself with an all-metal couch to progress through a laser-filled room. There are a number of brainteasers, and although some of the puzzles have rather obvious solutions, it speaks well of the game's inherent creativity when your first thought is how complicated your solution will need to be. It also helps that the main story mode is lengthy enough, and you can try to improve your leaderboard position with time and move trials.
For the most part, the puzzles and pacing are quite good. However, there are two things that mar the experience due to the level of frustration they introduce. The first has to do with the physics system. The tasks to complete a challenge are straightforward enough that a little wobble when a block lands on a switch won't hurt things. However, trying to get fluffy blocks to stick to the wall at just the right position becomes a matter of luck due to finicky physics. Platforming sections from this perspective don't feel quite right, so you'll find that a number of your deaths come from misjudging your jumps. Fans of the original Portal will note that these complaints were also in that title, but the difference is the frequency of these issues. Valve's game didn't this issue until the latter half of the title, and even then, it didn't crop up in that many sections. It's enough to discourage people from continuing.
The game's look provides a much-needed change from the cold, lifeless labs of similar puzzle titles. Though the colors are a bit muted, there's an abundance of it in the title. The artistic take on everything, from chairs to portraits, does a good job of emulating a typical Saturday morning cartoon, and the inclusion of a dimensional feline helps to convey that vibe. Filters and colors deliver an immediate notion of a dimension change, so you won't have to look for subtle hints. The attention to detail is on display when you look at the portraits, as each dimensional change provides a change in look and character when looking at a seemingly simple picture of a family member.
The graphics aren't free from some flaws and criticisms, however. Almost all of the rooms in the house tend to have the same look and décor, so there's always a feeling of familiarity to go along with each trial. Some of this is explained away through the plot when they introduce replicators, but seeing some of the same portraits in several different rooms is a bit much. Also, there are no options when it comes to changing anything graphically related; it'll shock longtime PC gamers since they're used to having this type of control. The game tries to do a good job of scaling both resolution and detail according to system specs, but you get the feeling that you can make it perform even better on a low-spec machine if you had control over these details.
Unlike the graphics, the sound adheres to the style of its predecessors. The music goes for something more serious, and sometimes a little sinister, instead of a more lighthearted score that would match the cartoon aesthetics. The sound effects also go for more realistic tones as opposed to something with a little more personality. John de Lancie delivers a great performance as your uncle, and while he fits the role nicely, the lines that he's given seem to emulate a certain robotic tormentor in terms of his deadpan delivery and dark humor. Overall, the sound is good but doesn't feel like it melds well with the graphical style.
Quantum Conundrum isn't exactly the game that some people had expected. The abundant bad platforming dampens the experience, and the fickle physics system turns a few of the puzzles into games of chance. The puzzle aspects are fun enough, even if most can easily be solved, and the dimension manipulation is a fresh idea. Both casual and dedicated puzzle fans will have fun with this title, especially considering the $15 price point for the game.
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