Writing comedy is hard, as Gameology just discovered after speaking with Steve Heinrich, Lead Writer of You Don’t Know Jack. Equally challenging to a game based around comedy are puzzle games. Not only must the creator provide a uniquely challenging experience; the game can’t be repetitive and has to work for all audiences. So when I heard that Quantum Conundrum was designed by Kim Swift, who was the lead designer on Portal, the game seemed like a sure bet.
Maybe we should just call it the “Valve Effect”.
Quantum Conundrum pits players as a young boy in Q from Star Trek: TNG’s McMansion trying to pull the mad scientist out of an alternate dimension. Puzzles revolve around four basic dimensional changes that players can instigate: fluffy, which makes all items light enough to carry; heavy, which makes everything so dense it can’t break; slow, which makes everything move at a crawl; and reverse gravity, which is self explanatory. Every level requires using at least one of these dimensions to solve whatever puzzle there is.
However, unlike Portal which tests the human psyche’s understanding of movement, distance, general physics, and momentum, or Braid which forced players to bend their brains around manipulating time, Quantum Conundrum is an arcade puzzler. Every new room entered, every door to unlock or deadly laser to get by, features nothing more than a new set of rules but the same old routine. Get by the walkway with a laser and a couch. How? Pick up the couch in fluffy, toss it towards the laser, and switch to heavy. Anyone should be able to do that in their sleep.
The first few times where simplistic puzzle solving like that are fine, beneficial in fact. They help lead players to find the right solution. But if there’s anything Valve is good at, it’s teaching players to do the most basic action and then leaving the rest for the player to discover. Most puzzle titles fail because they just wrap up the same set of puzzles in different paper, and try to trick players into solving them a little differently. Unfortunately, Quantum Conundrum doesn’t reach the heights of Swift’s previous venture. Not by a longshot.
Of course, making a game as good as Portal is a challenge no one should ever have to overcome, one even Valve couldn’t achieve. The problem is that great puzzle titles are memorable because of how difficult yet how intelligent their puzzles are. Quantum Conundrum uses basic trickery and simple maneuvering to make players get on their metaphorical feet and think. In a strange and most unsatisfactory way, this makes the gameplay completely forgettable and very dull, even when playing.
Not to say I’m a master at puzzle games, because I certainly am not. I spent many more hours with plenty of puzzlers than need be, stuck on a good 2-3 of the hardest ones. That never happened with Quantum Conundrum. I did get stuck, but the solutions were never about using a dimension in a unique way, or manipulating objects within dimensions in tandem to do something that takes imagination and creativity. No, the difficult puzzles just require additional patience and better hand-eye coordination. You know, so you can jump onto the platform or time the throw right.
Because that’s all Quantum Conundrum really is, a basic physics puzzle title with nothing unique or special. Just solve the simplistic puzzles by dropping the crate onto the box, moving one item across a level, or whatever the level entails. The only thing this game offers is a selection of limitations and exceptions to them to put a twist on things. When the most difficult thing about a puzzle game is general movement controls or proper timing…you aren’t being forced to think. You’re being forced to play video games well, and are punished if you don’t.
To tie a full poo-colored bow on this package, John DeLacie’s voicework, while superb, is a constant nuisance. Dr. Quadwrangle is an annoying and utterly flummoxing character, one who can’t shut the hell up. If the point of this uncle gone awry was to make players want to finish the game as quickly as possible, then he is a complete success.
I am only completely thankful that the game takes about six hours to beat, and can take roughly four for players who don’t get stuck repeating the same puzzles over and over again because making that impossible jump is normal in their Call of Duty or or Team Fortress 2 sessions. Combine that with a lack of visual complexity and a complete lack of fun for generally all age groups, and Quantum Conundrum’s attempt at being playable for anyone wholly and utterly backfired.
Bottom Line: A bland puzzle game that’s annoying at its worst
- An interesting twist on regular physics puzzles
- Gameplay favors precision movement far more than puzzle solving
- Voiceover work is solid…but entirely frustrating