Released in 2007, Portal was a huge surprise to gamers everywhere and garnered massive acclaim for its combination of clever puzzles and wit. After the release of Portal, one of the lead designers, Kim Swift, struck out on her own to join Airtight Games and develop Quantum Conundrum, a brand-new IP that is a worthy spiritual successor to Portal in many ways, save one.
We’ll get to that one key difference later, but we’ll start first with the similarities. Quantum Conundrum tweaks the original Portal’s gameplay model by replacing the ubiquitous orange and blue portals for dimension shifting. Players use the ability to dimension shift in order to move through the many rooms of the player’s uncle’s large mansion, replete with weird science experiments, strange alien creatures, and giant paintings of cats. The puzzle’s are well-designed, and feel more kinetic than in Portal or Portal 2, with almost constant motion from the player, including dodging lasers, jumping puzzles, and manipulating gravity to guide safes through laser-infested areas. Solving the puzzles makes the player feel rather smart, and the satisfaction of having a “eureka” moment and solving a previously tough puzzle suddenly and effortlessly is endlessly gratifying. The different dimensional states (fluffy, heavy, slow-time, and gravity) are metered out steadily, with each shift having a chance to shine through the game’s 50+ puzzle rooms. Shifting powers are used in a myriad of ways throughout the game’s 6 hour campaign, and combined for the player in interesting ways. One highlight of the puzzles is a room wherein the player is given a choice of which shifting power to start with, and the rest of the powers are then disbursed in different areas in the environment. The player then has to use all of the skills they’ve learned throughout the game to reclaim all of their powers, and use them in concert to solve the puzzle at the end.
My main problem with Portal was that the difficulty curve felt too slight for me. I felt as though once I got a handle on the mechanic, the puzzles themselves were relatively easy, only getting difficult near the end of the game. Portal 2 kept this same difficulty curve. It’s pleasant, but not exactly challenging. Quantum Conundrum throws some real stumpers at you almost from the start, sometimes leaving you staring at a situation or watching an action loop over and over before getting an idea of how the puzzle is meant to be solved. There were a couple of points where I had to step away (especially in some of the first-person jumping puzzle segments), but the game usually felt fair and balanced, except for a few spots near the end when the game breaks its own rules by throwing switches for the player to activate that open doors at the other end of the room. There were a couple of times where, in my haste to survey the puzzle area in front of me, I neglected the switch box to my left or right, only to find out there was no power sent to the door that I just spent a half-hour devising a route to. It can be frustrating, but the gameplay as a whole is more great work from the mind of Kim Swift.
Graphically, the game is average. The engine runs crisply, but the art is so-so and the game reuses many environments (with what felt like the exact same layout) in-between puzzle rooms. The robots and aliens are full of personality (especially the DOLLIs), and are often good for a smile. It’s apparent that the budget for the game went mostly to the puzzles themselves, and that’s fine, but a bit more variation in-between rooms (where you’re doing nothing but walking and looking around), would have made the mansion feel bigger than it did.
The sound work in the game is very nice, with the centerpiece being John De Lancie’s very John Lithgow-esque performance as Professor Quadwrangle, the player’s uncle and inventor/designer/mad scientist. He chimes in at the perfect times, and the subtle hints he provides are helpful and often timed right as the player is looking for a hint. There are some genuinely funny moments (especially as you break glass), and all of the dialog (even the incidental stuff) has genuine care put into it.
So this all sounds good so far, right? Puzzle elements are fun and inventive, sound is great, graphics are underwhelming but not ugly…so what’s missing?
Ahh yes, the story.
Portal was also pretty skimpy with its story in the beginning, but there are hints to a larger world that keep the player motivated into finding out what exactly is going on at Aperture Science. In the last act, the game takes a massive left turn, and the player falls down the rabbit hole deep into conspiracy, enough so to spawn a second, bigger game.
I played through Quantum Conundrum, waiting for something unexpected to happen. Room to room, I powered through those 50+ puzzles waiting for Professor Quadwrangle to regain his memory at the perfect moment in order to change my viewpoint on everything I had just done. It never came. He does finally remember, but the game ends immediately after, completely botching the ending and any world building, instead presenting a scenario whereby the player will have to basically go through another set of the same puzzles, but this time as a different character. It stinks. Part of the brilliance of Portal and Portal 2 was that there was intrigue built into the world, and the interaction between Chell and GLaDOS informed the world outside of the testing chambers. This is the most disappointing part of Quantum Conundrum. The writing is clever, but it never goes anywhere. It’s all just quips and little jokes that, while worth smirking at, never build towards anything bigger. Even the “Still Alive” knockoff at the end feels ersatz.
Quantum Conundrum had potential, but the game feels small compared to its spiritual forebears. While the puzzle design is expertly done, the personality of the Portal universe did not make its way into Kim Swift’s attempt to branch outside of Valve. Had the game not had the pedigree it does, I might have been easier on it, but it feels like they were building towards something larger, and either ran out of time, or didn’t know how to finish. It’s a sour note to end such a fun experience, but I recommend it still on the back of the great work done on the puzzles.
Just don’t expect too much, or you’ll be disappointed.
A copy of Quantum Conundrum was purchased by the reviewer for this review.