When we first heard that Kim Swift, the lead designer for Portal, was interested in making another puzzle platformer game, our interest was immediately piqued. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone on our staff who could claim that Portal was anything less than a massive step forward for the industry, and I’ve often wished for a bout of amnesia just so that I could revisit it without any previous knowledge regarding its contents. It’s unfortunate but, when Portal is the game you’re going to be compared against, the bar has been set at a level that is simply unattainable for most games. I don’t know how, and I’m not really sure I care, but Quantum Conundrum actually surpasses its beloved predecessor in some ways.
Quantum Conundrum pits you as a young child who has been dropped off at his scientist uncle’s mansion for a weekend trip. Upon arriving, your uncle, Professor Fitz Quadwrangle, has been inexplicitly transported into a different dimension with no memory of how he got there. In order to get him out, you’re tasked with restarting three generators that power Quadwrangle Mansion. Of course, it would be a boring game if you could simply walk up and flip a few switches and be done with the entire ideal. Instead, you’ll be using your uncle’s newest invention, the IDS glove, to switch between dimensions in order to solve complex physics based puzzles.
Each dimension is introduced gradually throughout the game, giving you enough time to learn how to play with their unique mechanics before being tasked with throwing everything together. With each dimension, the entire world is changed slightly. In the Fluffy dimension, everything is 10 times lighter than normal and is seemingly made out of Quilted Charmin. This lets you pick up just about any item in the game, which is useful for when you need heavy items to hold down a pressure plate, or for them to be blown against the wall by a fan for a makeshift staircase.
The Heavy dimension has the opposite effect, causing items to weigh in at 10 times their norm while taking on an armored appearance, with their new density allowing them to pass through laser beams without being destroyed. Then there’s the Slow dimension, which slows time to a crawl while the player moves at normal speed. Lastly, the Reverse Gravity dimension either reverses gravity or ports you to a dimension where everything has been built upside down. You can choose your own explanation.
Only one dimension can be active at a time, and many times you’ll be forced to switch on the fly in order to get through puzzles. For example, you can pick up a safe in the Fluffy dimension and successfully throw it through a pane of glass behind some lasers if you switch to Heavy while it’s in midair. It may be hard to fully appreciate exactly how these play off of each other since the very laws of physics as we understand them are being redefined on the fly; however, the game does a fantastic job of presenting it in a way that makes sense. By the end of the game, having to jump from slow moving couches on to a safe that I had thrown from the other side of the room was as normal as pulling a lever to open the door. It’s magnificent in design, really.
The beauty of Quantum Conundrum is often its simplicity. Every room you encounter while trying to power on the generators holds a new puzzle capable of driving you to the brink of madness as you scramble to figure out just how to use your tools properly. You will be tasked with thinking outside of the box, though you’re never put in an impossible situation or one where you have no idea where to start. Every puzzle can be solved, often fairly simply, once you figure out the proper approach. I lost track of how often I went from swearing under my breath about how impossible a puzzle was to grinning like an idiot while exclaiming that “I am the best at Science!” after finally figuring out its solution.
One of the subtle things that give Quantum Conundrum its signature charm is fairly easy to overlook. With each change in dimensions, the artwork hanging around the mansion changes. Characters will be checking their watches while covered in cobwebs in the Slow dimension, fish will fly out of their bowls in Reverse Gravity dimension and old ladies will see their hair turn to a pink fuzzball in the Fluffy dimension.
The Easter eggs don’t end with the paintings, though. Books are littered throughout the mansion with titles to excite nerds of all sizes. Atlas Shifted, The Original Sin2, Of Mice and Mandelbrot, and Jurassic Quark litter the hallways while waiting for you to find them. I’m fairly sure I lost a bit of hearing in my left ear from the squeel my girlfriend let out when she stumbled across Time-Lord of the Rings. The attention to minor details such as these are what really separates Quantum Conundrum from many titles in terms of immersion. Everything is absolutely insane, but manages to make perfect sense in the world Airtight Games has created.
While the story is fairly simplistic, it’s extremely well done. Professor Quadwrangle, voiced by Jon de Lancie of Star Trek fame, guides you through the mansion with commentary that is heavy on both snark and 80s pop culture references. While it may certainly not be a hit with everyone, it falls directly into my wheelhouse of self-depreciating, pseudointellectual humor. There may not be a lot in terms of character progression or story arcs but, throughout my 7 hour run, the story seemed fulfilling, albeit a bit cheesy at times. My main complaint comes from the complete lack of closure. Airtight Games has announced that there are two DLC packs on the way, and I have to assume that this will be addressed then. It’s just a shame that the game seems to end so abruptly.
By nature, puzzle games don’t offer a lot in terms of replay value. However, completionists will be able to search for 24 collectible Awkward Noise Makers scattered through the mansion that will require them to approach puzzles with a bit more cunning. There are also leaderboards available for every puzzle, tracking how many dimension shifts you needed, as well as how long it took you to race through. This may not be enough to keep everyone interested once the main story is over, but it’s something.
At the end of the day, Quantum Conundrum is one of the most charming and rewarding titles of the year. The $15 dollar price tag seems a pittance for a game of this caliber. In my opinion, if it was a bit longer, it would be easy to justify a full retail price tag for the experience. Every puzzle is easily solvable once you understand which mechanics need to be put into place, and there was never a time where I felt I was asked to do something that hadn’t properly been introduced before. If you are the type of gamer who fell in love with the Portal franchise, or one who gets excited over the next indie-puzzle-platformer, there is no excuse to miss this game. It may not be perfect, but this is a title that should not be overlooked.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which was given to us for review purposes.
Quantum Conundrum stands out as one of the most innovative and enjoyable titles released this year. While it falls short of perfection, I don't think I could overstate my enjoyment with the title and I simply can't recommend it enough.