Review for Quantumnauts: Chapter 1 - Speed of Light, Space Pirates and Multiverses
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Sometime in the distant future, we’ll have teleporters and spaceships and time-travelling devices, which unfortunately won’t always be used at the right time or for the right reasons, often causing trouble throughout the multiverse. In fact, we’ll need specialists to endlessly fix problems, repairing the damage where they can – except, of course, when they happen to cause a few accidents themselves. Such is the premise of Quantumnauts, a science fiction indie adventure which sends an ordinary man unwittingly into a dangerous alien world filled with space pirates, robots and mutants, forcing him to seek a way back home… or even just survive. Produced by Midian Design, Quantumnauts represents the studio’s first stab at releasing a slightly-commercial title after a few freeware releases. The end result is a hit-and-miss affair that includes some interesting puzzles to keep you entertained, but also some poor production values and a somewhat under-developed narrative.
The game starts out with unlikely hero Bob Marshall walking out of his local bar late one night. Bob normally stays until closing time and regularly attempts to stumble his way home (which is just two doors away), and on the odd occasion he even manages to make it. On this particular night, Bob is well and truly drunk but slightly more coherent than his usual form, when out of the blue he's teleported onto the bridge of a futuristic spaceship belonging to the Quantumnauts. This was an accident, it seems, as the ship’s captain was meant to be beamed back aboard. Unfortunately, lone crewman Lieutenant Robinson got the coordinates ever-so-slightly wrong and picked up Bob instead. Before this mistake can be corrected, they are set upon by space pirates determined to capture the ship. In a desperate move to escape, a time travel device is engaged, catapulting the craft into a distant future time and causing them to crash land on the planet Pyr. With Robinson dead, all ship power gone, and no hope of returning home, Bob sets out to explore the alien planet alone.
As Bob soon discovers, the Quantumnauts are part of an intergalactic organisation whose main goal is to travel throughout the galaxy, ensuring the preservation of time and space from anyone who may choose to interfere with it. For better or worse, it seems that Bob's chance meeting with the Quantumnauts has had the entirely opposite effect, quite literally altering the course of his own destiny. After recovering from the crash, Bob assumes the identity of the bridge lieutenant and finds a multi-lingual translation device, allowing him to communicate easily with the local population. Finding a way home won’t be so easy, however, as the adventure Bob embarks upon will lead him to discover a secret rebellion, a notorious alien dictatorship, a strange mutant dwelling that exists underground, and a pyramid that draws people to a secret location buried deep within the planet.
Your journey is initially spent travelling through the alien city of Minaxith, seeking allies and adapting to a land that's been invaded by a conquering space army, placing the world under an oppressive martial law. There are plenty of robots, alien creatures, and sci-fi paraphernalia to liven up the story along the way. One such artifact is a bracelet that activates a live hologram of a woman named Neena, who is in need of urgent assistance after being trapped in an ancient ruin. The hologram forms part of a communication device that allows the wearer to see and talk to a projected image but doesn't allow anyone else to view it. Bob agrees to help Neena in exchange for assistance escaping his own current predicament.
Much of the game is centred around conversation and character interactions. Dialogue for the most part is very good and keeps you interested in uncovering more of the story as things progress. Whether it’s the mutant character in the sewers, some of the snail-like administrators who run Minaxith or the aggressive alien conquerors, there are plenty of conversations to be experienced. There's an air of cheeky humour throughout, portraying Bob as a slightly desperate character whose aspirations in life have been extremely limited, yet still having a deluded sense of grandeur that contributes to his somewhat inflated ego. This makes for some amusing interactions between Bob and Neena. When the pair need to share a very cramped mine cart, Bob attempts to charm Neena into sitting on his lap for the duration of the ride. Unfortunately for him, it leads to a very humourous cutscene instead.
Quantumnauts pays tribute to other sci-fi movies and novels by borrowing various technologies that feature prominently in other works. The first is the spaceship, which looks oh-so-similar to the Enterprise from Star Trek, while the planet looks highly reminiscent of both Mos Eisley from Star Wars and some of the landscapes from David Lynch's Dune. Another recognizable detail is the socket implanted into the back of your neck so you can interface with the city’s computers. The list goes on of other elements that could be attributed to one movie or another, all apparently done in a light-hearted attempt at familiarity and humour. That’s not a bad thing, as there’s something to be said for homages to other works, but the Quantumnauts story is strong enough not to rely on any kind of parody, and after a while it becomes something of a distraction to the game’s own mythology.
The best thing about Quantumnauts are the puzzles, as there’s lots of them and they're generally well-conceived. Whilst there's nothing particularly elaborate or elegant about them, there are plenty of challenging item combinations, code locks and switch-based puzzles to keep you busy. All the puzzles tie in nicely with the sci-fi theme and some are even quite amusing, like the one you encounter whilst trying to get past a cleaning robot with the help of an elevator shaft, the result of which is sure to provide a smile. Another puzzle has you infiltrating the memory banks of a computer to weed out a virus, and it’s exceedingly clever. The main drawback is trying to locate certain items in the first place, as you’re forced to scour through the environments in careful pixel hunts, with no hotspot highlighter of any kind to assist you. These moments really kill the pace of the game and act more as irritating roadblocks than a challenging element of the story. There is one particular puzzle that has you looking for a crack in a wall, which is extremely frustrating because it's practically impossible to see and there are no clues as to why it would be there. Thankfully, there are only a handful of areas that will have you eye-straining to find such not-so-obvious objects, so it's not a major impediment, but making items difficult to see shouldn’t be part of any design strategy.
The graphics in Quantumnauts vary considerably in quality. They are certainly below par for a commercial game released in 2010, looking instead like something from an average title released back in 1997, albeit with a 1024 x 768 resolution. Compared to other indie adventures, however, it’s a much better looking title than many freeware releases. The environments are all pre-rendered but include some effects like shadows and lighting. My first impression was promising, as many of the backgrounds have nicely designed buildings and character sprites, but that impression soon began to fade: lighting sources appear to be incorrect and background items are sometimes insufficiently blended in. This is most noticeable in outdoor scenes like a wasteland shop, the pyramid and some of the roundabout transport service areas.
Characters are also a mixed bag. There are some great character designs such as Neena, the guardian robots, and a sewer mutant who happens to share a striking similarity with a certain Wookie. Unfortunately, they aren’t animated well, as they're often jerky and lacking fluidity. There are some cinematic cutscenes used in the introduction and when transporting to different areas of the city, which are reasonably well made but produced in a lower resolution than the rest of the game. The most disappointing visual aspect, however, is really just the wasted potential overall. There are so many possibilities here to create an impressive fictional world that it’s a shame the graphics aren’t more polished.
The audio doesn’t fare any better. Quantumnauts has some interesting but slightly generic sci-fi themed music tracks. The overall quality is fairly decent, but it lacks a sense of attachment to the storyline, offering little or no suitable context when critical actions are performed or when important information is being revealed. Given its repetitive nature, it could just as easily be turned off while listening to some of your own music playing in the background. In fact, turning the sound off wouldn't be a problem because this game not only lacks voice acting, but any sound effects whatsoever.
The interface is fairly straightforward, with the left mouse button activating either the look, talk or interact functions and the right button or mouse wheel allowing you to scroll through these options. Clicking an icon in the top right corner activates a MePod (yes, an iPod-looking device) which houses the inventory. The MePod initially looks like it might be a novel way to keep things organised, but this is quickly dispelled when you need to start using items. Rather than being able to simply click on an inventory item and then slide it onto the screen to use, you first need to select the use cursor, then click on the object and manually turn off on the MePod device. Not a terribly long process until you want to try out several different items to solve one of the many puzzles, and it becomes unnecessarily cumbersome over time. Items from the inventory can been combined together, which is much more easily done by simply selecting one item and clicking it on another.
Travelling speed is an issue as well, as Bob is only ever able to walk. This is okay when you’re in the city areas, but as soon as you leave and find yourself in massive open spaces, things begin to really slow down. Bob walks at an absolute snail’s pace, which makes exploring very tedious, and an option to run or double-click hotspots to speed things up would've been a big help here. This tacks a little extra time on the game, which is surprisingly lengthy for an independent adventure. For the experienced adventure gamer, Quantumnauts should provide approximately 8-10 hours of play before reaching the end, and possibly double that for a novice gamer. While this game comes to a satisfying conclusion in its own right, the finale clearly sets up the possibility of further episodes, and indeed this game is subtitled Chapter I: Speed of Light, Space Pirates and Multiverses, so we may be seeing more of Bob and Neena at some point in (our) future.
While clearly showing promise, overall the Quantumnauts debut has to be considered a little disappointing. There are some great ideas here, but the plot skims over most of the game’s best concepts rather than engaging players in the complexities of the environment. It also also borrows a little too heavily from other works instead of building its own sci-fi identity. The experience is also let down by unpolished graphics and animation, underdeveloped sound design, a cumbersome inventory, and even some pace-killing pixel hunts. The best elements are the puzzles and character interactions, but it’s difficult to recommend this title based solely on these features alone, though at its recently-reduced and easily affordable price tag at the official website, there might just be enough to warrant a look if the premise appeals to you. Compared to the better freeware adventures currently available, this game is far more substantial and does compare reasonably well in many ways. For just $2, it may provide an interesting distraction for a while, but don't expect this game to rock your world.