A one-line review of Quantum Conundrum might be: “It tries really, really hard to be Portal. It’s not Portal, but doesn’t mean it isn’t good.” (And poking around the internet reading reviews, I see this is the case!)
Quantum Conundrum is a game about moving blocks. The gimmick is that you (usually) can’t move the blocks directly to where you need them. Instead, you alter the properties of your location — weight, time, gravity — in clever ways until the configuration is just so. Then you step through the door, get your fortune cookie joke, and move on to the next level. After forty-odd levels of this, the game ends and you go, “Good times! Felt kinda like Portal.”
It’s not really fair to keep dragging Portal out. Sorry about that. I don’t mean to say the game is plagiarised. It’s not a Portal level pack in a new skin. Instead, it feels like the first major installment in the genre Portal started.
Let’s talk about the main divergence Conundrum takes from the Portal formula. In Portal the puzzle is moving yourself through the world by connecting points in space. There are blocks, and switches, and paint, yes, but the main goal is creating a path for you. In Conundrum it’s all about creating, altering and positioning the blocks in each level. You’re still forging a path, but the path is made up of the physical properites of the blocks you use to build it. The big question in Portal is always, “How do I get up there?” The big question in Conundrum is, “What do I do with all this stuff?”
Still physics puzzles, then. But physics puzzles of a different sort. And while there is some overlap in puzzle design between the two games, the boundaries are nonetheless clearly delineated.
The Portal bell is rung a few other ways, too. You have the disembodied helper voice to egg you along through the puzzles. You have color-coded magic power buttons, which represent core gameplay elements, unlocked as the game goes on. You have silly, overblown names for common objects. You have the skewed worship of science. Hmm… no mention of cake, now that I think about it. I guess there’s blatant, and then there’s blatant.
The humor is very different. I don’t want to say it’s “younger”, although it is — the mute avatar is a young boy, and each game over points out another thing he won’t be able to experience now that he’s dead — I want to say it’s more whimsical. Portal was a black comedy, while Conundrum is a Saturday morning cartoon. Both are well-written, well-acted and funny. Conundrum veers maybe a little too far towards corny, at times, but that’s the target they were shooting for. It works nicely.
Throughout Conundrum you are accompanied via intercom by Crazy Uncle Whozits, voiced expertly by John de Lancie. Your uncle is sometimes patronizing, sometimes deprecating, but nonetheless offers a measure of concern for your situation, including kudos where they’re appropriate. (Never got that from GLADoS, I’ll admit!) This is also how the story is delivered; faceless voice-overs between levels, with small revelations spattered here and there. The story isn’t actually very compelling, but then neither was Portal‘s, nor any other physics-puzzle game worth playing.
Uncle Whatnose also delivers hints whenever he thinks you’re stuck — often quite rudely. (“Maybe you should try going… higher? Hint hint?”) This is a nice little system and I’m sure it helped a lot of players along through the learning curve, but I wished I could have shut them off. Or, at least, I wish the old bastard would wait until I’ve started to play with stuff before chiming in with sardonic nudging. I take a methodical approach to games like this. I like to enter an area and identify all the moving pieces before I start throwing switches and hurling boxes around. The end result, in my case, was that Ol’ Uncle Pantsface often started dropping clues just about the time I’d finished making my rounds. Since I’m good at these kinds of games, that usually meant he was literally describing the action I was taking, or was bout to take. It was annoying.
Weirdly, in the one or two cases I was really stuck, the hints weren’t of any help. They were either too vague, or too abstract. Oh well. I figured it out anyway.
Puzzle design is the one aspect which could forgive any other sin the game could possibly commit. And the puzzles were great. The game gives you four magic powers, and then gives you lots and lots of fun things to do with those powers. There are lots of spots where your initial reaction to a room will be, “How the hell am I going to do this!?” And then two minutes later you’re on your way. That’s a good feeling.
Well, that’s how it is when the game is on form, anyway. There are a lot of hiccups along the way. The same sort of hiccups as any other game with physics puzzles, actually. Certainly the same sort of hiccups Portal had, when it made you play with boxes. On one hand, you have this persistent world with realistic-ish physics. Things move and rotate, bounce and crash, fall and fly just about how you’d expect them to. On the other hand, the puzzles are all based around precision. You need this box to land there, or go in that direction. The end result is, you spend quite a lot of time trying to finagle the game into working the way you want it to.
Sometimes the game tries to help you out, although it does so inconsistently. For example, there is a type of platform you use to launch boxes into the air. Whenever you set a box on this platform, it snaps into place. Whether you’re throwing the box somewhere useful, or riding it yourself, or whatever, you are assured it will do what it’s supposed to, because the game has already nudged it into position.
But then there is another type of platform, a circular button you need to weigh down. Boxes don’t snap to these, so sometimes you’ll go through a series of convoluted actions, miss the destination by two degrees, and fail. And this is to say nothing of situations where you have to place or stack blocks yourself. I was stuck in one room for nearly twenty minutes, not because I couldn’t figure out what to do, but because the box I was riding kept clipping on part of the scenery and getting knocked askew.
The feedback in these situations is reasonable. Usually, when things feel really rocky or wobbly, it’s because you’re approaching the problem in the wrong way. Nonetheless there were several spots where I ran the same sequence of actions several times just to be sure my initial idea wasn’t going to work. And there were a few times where my initial idea was correct, but failed on my first try, leading me to believe I was on the wrong track when I wasn’t.
I wouldn’t want to be the guy tasked with solving this problem. If every puzzle were as neat and tidy as the snap-to bouncy platforms, most of the elegence of the puzzles would be destroyed. At the same time, though, I don’t think it’s fair to penalize the player for solving a puzzle at a very-slightly-incorrect angle.
Oh, and let us not forget the other aspect of quirky physics puzzles: jumping! Jumping in first-person games has never worked, ever, because you can’t see where your feet are. Most first-person games have the good sense to not be the kind of games that require you to know where your feet are, but Quantum Conundrum doesn’t have that good sense, so prepare yourself to fall into a lot of pits. Lots and lots of puzzles require you to jump to or from precarious ledges, often while they are moving through space, sometimes with very little time to plan and angle your jump. Some levels require you to guide a box through a gauntlet of lasers and solid scenery, the bulk of which resides outside of your field of vision, and yes, slightly clipping that pipe you thought you’d clear (because you misjudged, because you can’t see your feet or the box they’re on) means a death and a retry. Why did you ask?
There are a variety of reasons jumping around in Portal was never — okay, seldom — frustrating. There’s no need to go into any of the tricks they used, though, because Conundrum doesn’t use them. You jump, you hope for the best. Sometimes it’s not clear whether you can make a jump or not. Sometimes you have to make jumps you’d swear aren’t make-able. Sometimes you jump, miss the platform, and have just enough time to hear Uncle Crazybutt congratulate you before the game over screen chips in.
The lousy jumping, and the wodgy physics, conspired to ruin many of the puzzles for me. Please understand the distinction, here: the puzzles themselves were fine. And solving them was fun. But once I solved them, it often took several tries to implement the solution. And that isn’t fun. The time between the moment you figure out the solution, and the moment you finally get where you’re going, is totally wasted. It is maddening to know, in my heart of hearts, that I would succeed at my task if the goddamn game would just get out of my way.
To Conundrum‘s credit, it always did, eventually. This aspect of the game was never so bad that I wanted to quit playing it.
I found the game to be pretty easy, which was a little disappointing because most of what I’d read led me to believe it would be more challenging. Which isn’t to say there’s no challenge. Just… I was expecting a torrent and instead got a strong drizzle. I still have the two DLC chapters to play; maybe those have more teeth.
Last thing worth mentioning: the loading time in this game sucks. I don’t mean that it’s too invasive or that there is too much of it. I mean it sucks. Look, I can appreciate that the designers didn’t want to stick big, obtrusive loading bars overtop of their persistent world. But what they did instead just doesn’t work. They try to mask the load times by having you walk through long hallways between each level, often punctuated by amusing Uncle banter. But then the game locks up, hangs, stutters, chokes just as you reach the door. Every level begins with forty seconds of herk-jerk wiggle-the-sticks-until-it’s-smooth-again. The first time this happened to me I thought the game had crashed, so I restarted it. The second time it happened I thought I should probably turn down some of the graphics settings. The third time it happened I realized it was just a thing I would have to put up with.
This was on the PC version, by the way. Maybe the console versions are smoother, I don’t know.
After playing Portal, I remember thinking that was the kind of game that defines a genre. Like Doom, or Street Fighter II — not the first game of its type, but the first one that is so good that every similar game takes its conventions and recasts them. I feel like Quantum Conundrum is the next level. It’s not as perfect as Portal — what game is? — but it scratches exactly the same kind of itch. I want another game like this every year, please, for the rest of my life. Maybe a tad harder, and with less jumping.