So you loved Portal (who didn't?!) and now you want to know where to find something similar. The short answer is: nowhere! The longer answer, however, is that there are clearly some games that found obvious inspiration in Valve's unique puzzler-physics sim-shooter-platformer-thingie (that's for all those people who incorrectly refuse to call it an adventure). In our latest quest for puzzles outside traditional genre boundaries, we've ventured into the home of a mad scientist in Kim Swift 's Quantum Conundrum and the mind-blowing, reality-shifting hallways of Alexander Bruce's Antichamber. Although on the surface both owe a debt of great gratitude to Portal, the two games quickly seek to find their own identity in providing a different experience entirely, for better or sometimes worse.
It's perfectly understandable to think of Quantum Conundrum as a Portal clone. Understandable... but also perfectly wrong, at least in several ways of great importance to adventure gamers. The comparisons are inevitable and not without merit on the surface. Developed by Airtight Games, it's the brainchild of Kim Swift, one of the co-designers of Narbacular Drop, which later morphed into the superb Portal at Valve. And indeed, Quantum Conundrum shares the same basic formula of trying to escape an impossibly large building by running around and solving a sequence of linear environmental puzzles using special physics-altering abilities. But that's where the similarities end, as while Portal was very much a character-driven, largely cerebral quest, this game has virtually no story at all, and is very much a platformer, albeit one stacked with head-scratching puzzles.
The premise is simple: You are a mere child visiting your mad scientist uncle, but as soon as you arrive, you discover that Professor Quadwrangle's latest experiment has gone horribly wrong, trapping him in some kind of inter-dimensional limbo. He still maintains some kind of vocal projection capability from beyond, so he's able to communicate with you throughout, though this proves to be both a blessing and a curse. His instructions are to fire up the generators in each of the mansion's three wings, but to do that, you'll first need to master the "inter-dimensional shift device", a glove that bestows you with unique new powers the further you proceed. And you'll need them all, often in split-second conjunction, if you're to overcome the 50-odd obstacle courses that stand between you and your goal.
That's really all there is, story-wise. Unlike Portal, whose narrative felt like an eerily sinister, disconnected puzzle waiting to be pieced together, in Quantum Conundrum what you see (or... well, hear) is what you get. The ongoing dialogue serves merely as a launch point into the many puzzling challenges that await. Voiced by John de Lancie (Star Trek's Q, who also seemed to take perverse delight in playing mind games), your uncle is part guide, part reluctant companion, part nattering annoyance. He'll offer an occasional nudge in the right direction, particularly when you encounter a new element to contend with, and at times spurs you on with his personal brand of caustic encouragement. All too often he's simply background noise, however, distractedly musing on his own odd predicament in mostly unamusing ways.
Once away on your physics-defying errand, the heart of Quantum Conundrum is the gameplay itself, and for the most part it delivers. You'll encounter pressure plates to trigger and lasers to block or bypass, plus giant fans gusting heavy wind, conveyor belts, angled springs, magnetic walls, and of course giant chasms filled with deadly yellow "science juice". Time is often limited, as swaying drinking birds press door-opening buttons routinely on schedule. But time isn't the only thing that's short; so are you. As a kid, you can't jump very far or reach very high or carry anything too heavy. Which is a problem, as just about everything of use in the mansion is too big to climb or lift without help.
Enter the IDS and its special powers. With the glove on you're personally immune to any changes in physical laws, but you'll quickly gain the ability to make tables, chairs and even safes light enough to carry and throw, then later turn them heavy and dense enough to withstand any pressure. Eventually you'll learn how to slow down time to a virtual crawl and defy gravity as well. This sounds like they'd make life a whole lot easier, but with great power comes great inconvenience (this is Uncle Quadwrangle we're dealing with, not Spider-Man's Uncle Ben). You can only use one power at any given moment, and to do even that you'll need to continually find their respective coloured batteries in each new area.
With only the "fluffy" power available at first, challenges are pretty straightforward as you ease into the game, but the more you progress, the tougher the obstacles become. Large metallic heads on the wall called DOLLIs spit out boxes or furniture at regular intervals, and quickly stringing powers together becomes a strategic necessity. Since triggering one ability instantly disables the previous one, you must figure out how to use them in rapid-fire succession to work cooperatively. Breaking glass panes is a simple matter of throwing an artificially-lightened object and then turning it heavy mid-flight, but you'll be tearing your hair out at times wondering how to make your presence felt in two places at once or traverse laser-protected territory without any apparent means of transport. Some levels can be quite challenging, especially as the goal is rarely immediately clear, but that makes it all the more satisfying when you finally nail the solution.
But that's just the start of your worries. Even when you do figure a puzzle sequence out, it's no small feat to carry out your plan, as Quantum Conundrum's platforming stages can be very difficult in their own right. I can count the number of tricky jumps in either Portal game on one hand; here there are many levels that require more fingers and toes than I've got – or at least, the same few jumps will take that many times to finally stick successfully. Without pinpoint control, dying is a frequent and inevitable occurrence, and though you're near-instantly restored to a point just prior to death, the many "things you will never experience" listed on the loading screens stop being funny long before you see the last of them.
One of the culprits is the first-person perspective itself. It's always hard to gauge distance when you can't see your feet, let alone when you're altering any or all of gravity, time, and density halfway through your leap. But jumping isn't the only problem. You'll also need to make tricky throws with no means to measure angles, create your own gravity-based roller coasters, and perform precision timing to switch powers on the fly (sometimes literally). Occasionally you'll need to coordinate elaborate environmental setups in order to succeed, like arranging three crates on separate conveyors to form a bridge at the exact moment you need them. Botch your jump or mistime any aspect of the sequence, and it's back to the beginning to start all over.
The game works with either a gamepad or mouse/keyboard on PC, and while I preferred the tighter cursor control of the latter when trying to catch or target moving objects (a constant requirement), more than a few times I mistakenly hit the '1' instead of 'Q' or '3' instead of 'E' under duress, which caused a drastically different result. There's nothing quite so maddening as thinking you're about to reverse gravity in mid-jump, only to realize you've suddenly made everything weigh a ton. It's certainly not that I couldn't remember what power was what button. For some reason, the game shows all four key commands on screen at all times (even when you currently can't access them all) in big, bold print, with no way to turn them off.
Then again, it's not like there's a lot else filling the screen. Quantum Conundrum's graphics are presented in a sparse, slightly cartoony way, which looks pleasant enough but quickly grows tiresome due to drab design and relentless repetition. Between puzzling levels you'll wander through the same hallways lined with scattered furniture, suits of armour, and wall paintings (although I got a kick out of the four-part framed picture of a dachshund), just to get to the same electronic doorlock you've seen a million times before. The levels themselves are only slightly more varied. Once you've seen the first few mechanized chambers, you've pretty much seen them all, just reconfigured for new challenges. The only real bright spot is the intermittent appearance of Ike, a little green creature that serves no apparent purpose other than to look cute.
Each power comes with its own distinctive aesthetic – fluffy turns everything a pale white, heavy a rusty metal, anti-gravity a faded green, and slow-mo a scratchy film-like yellow. This makes it abundantly clear which ability is currently active, but further deprives the game of much of its already limited visual appeal. The music is just as recurringly bland. It's a cheesy, simple synthesizer score, which is harmless enough at first, but offers nothing to the atmosphere and quickly becomes monotonous.
It's a shame that Quantum Conundrum is so repetitive, because the puzzles can be great fun to work through, and the platforming, for all its excessive frustrations, offers a welcome change of pace. But if it were going to steal one more page out of Portal's playbook, perhaps it should have been brevity. There just aren't enough new powers, environments, or even traps to adequately fill its ten or so hours of gameplay, and padding playtime with countless deaths just isn't a replacement for tighter design and more rewarding variety. If you're content with a "more of the same" gameplay philosophy, there's lots to enjoy here. For others, the novelty will wear off before the game comes to its disappointingly anti-climactic ending. Still, at its affordable budget price, it's easy to recommend the game for what it does well, as its many clever puzzles will surely give both your brain and your (virtual) legs a run for your money.Continued on the next page...