Swift's Latest Charms, But Never Wows
In August 2011, I was lucky enough to actually be in the same room as Kim Swift when she announced Quantum Conundrum at PAX Prime. Swift, the genius behind Portal, admitted that first-person puzzlers were “kind of her thing,” and that this new title would not deviate far from the successful format she pioneered. This is both Quantum Conundrum’s greatest boon and its heaviest hindrance: the familiar design is still fantastic, but it is impossible to judge the game in a pre-2007 vacuum. For all of its charm and smarts, even a great game like this one is overshadowed by an even better one.
Quantum Conundrum puts you in the tiny feet of a 12 year-old boy, dropped off for a visit at the sprawling manor of your mad scientist uncle. However, it is not long until mysterious circumstances turn this visit into an interdimensional search and rescue mission. The story is mere window dressing for the actual gameplay, but the utter quirkiness of the estate (and its residents) creates a charming and colourful world to explore, with a fun soundtrack to boot. The setting is funny and cartoony, and will definitely put a smile on your face.
Being as young as you are, you are not all that well-equipped to brave the dangers of the environment: you are not tall enough to jump very high, not strong enough to lift heavy objects, and you do not have any weapons. What you do have, however, is your uncle’s prized Inter-Dimensional Shift (IDS) Device, which allows you to jump between multiple dimensions at the press of a button. You can traverse four alternate dimensions throughout the game, such as the Fluffy Dimension, in which heavy objects become pink plushies, and the Slow Motion Dimension, in which you can scurry about freely while time crawls for everything else.
Hopping between these different dimensions to solve puzzles feels natural and fun, and never really gets old. While minimal décor differences might make you swear you have been in a new room once before, the designers have succeeded in mixing up the puzzles just enough to keep the game fresh. New challenges will call for using objects in innovative ways, and different combinations of available dimensions will keep you on your toes. Much like Portal before it, Quantum Conundrum is a game for the curious, and rewards thinking outside of the box.
However, it is extremely difficult to talk about this game as if it were a real breakthrough. All of its mechanics are sound and novel, but the game never quite manages to create the same “wow” moments as its popular forebear. Especially when considering Portal 2, which featured a fully-fleshed out story and a dedicated multiplayer campaign, Quantum Conundrum only offers a 5-hour romp through what may as well be individual, disconnected levels. In terms of quantity, you get what you pay for at only $15, but there is no reason that the quality of the game should not be up to Swift’s earlier standards.
What is most unfortunate about Quantum Conundrum is that it ends just as it starts to get truly creative. You will spend most of the game unlocking different dimensions for the IDS device, but by the time you acquire the final one the game is nearly finished. The game’s creative potential is squandered, as the puzzles that challenge you to use all four dimensions are far too few. Upcoming DLC packs will likely remedy this, but it is disappointing nonetheless.
Quantum Conundrum represents one of the first legitimate challenges to the dominance of the Portal titles in the first-person puzzler subset, and offers enough refreshing twists to keep the unique genre relevant. It fires on all the pistons it is supposed to, but it only goes that far: it just works. It may seem unfair to judge Quantum Conundrum against the phenomenon of the Portal pedigree, but the hard truth is that it represents the genre standard; the bare minimum any new game should meet. Quantum Conundrum is easy enough to recommend on its own, but only with the admission that there are superior alternatives.