A long time ago I interviewed the makers of Field Commander, a PSP game that shamelessly ripped off Nintendo's Advance Wars series. I asked them about this critique, curious if they would get defensive and deny the obvious. To their credit, they acknowledged the influence and took on the charge. They told me that they were fine with being compared to Nintendo's classic strategy title, because, by their measurement, Advance Wars is one of the greatest games of all time.
I imagine the makers of Quantum Conundrum have a similar reaction when being compared to Portal. This is a game so similar to Valve's seminal puzzler that I'm surprised it's not litigious. All of the elements are in place -- test chambers full of puzzles, a disembodied voice commenting on everything you do, a companion cube, whimsical writing and, just to be safe, an indie nerdcore rock song to play out the credits. The only thing missing from Portal is the clever writing and the actual portals.
You play a voiceless kid who gets sucked into a wild adventure full of dimensional shifts, deadly lasers and gremlins. His uncle is a mad scientist who has spent his life developing ice beams and time machines. He lives is a gigantic mansion/laboratory on the edge of a giant cliff, precariously close to falling into the wicked waves below.
As luck would have it, your uncle has been sent into an alternate dimension. Unfortunately, this means he won't be able to go through these various challenges himself. Instead all he can do is look on and guide his nephew to victory. It's up to you to go in his place, completing the trials and restarting each wing of the mansion. Do that and you'll bring the whole family together, not to mention save the world from some catastrophic dimensional meltdown.
Each wing brings a new set of abilities to master. The first wing gives the player control over the weight of physical objects. With one touch of the button, our hero can turn a heavy safe into an object light as a feather. You are also able to make things heavy. This allows the player to turn a regular cardboard box into an object as heavy as a safe.
Before long the game introduces a new ability, a dimension that slows everything down. Suddenly this opens up a number of exciting new possibilities. You can pick up a safe and throw it into the air, trigger the slow motion, jump onto the safe suspended in midair and ride it across a bottomless gap. You can get past dangerous lasers and fan blades without being noticed. These three abilities give the developers a lot of room to come up with clever challenges.
Once you've mastered slow motion, the game throws one last dimensional shift at you. This time around you can remove gravity, pushing everything that isn't bolted to the floor up to the ceiling. Now you have the ability to not only ride a thrown object, but you can make it float indefinitely. Suddenly you are forced to think about object placement and what will happen when you reverse gravity.
No matter which dimension you trigger, our hero is impervious to its affects. That means that you will walk at normal speed when everything else is slowed down to a crawl. Better yet, you won't float to the ceiling when gravity is reversed and get weighed down when you make objects heavy. It's also worth noting that not all puzzles allow for every type of ability. Sometimes you'll have to pick and choose depending on the scenario.
While the game goes out of its way to resemble Portal, the puzzles themselves aren't all that similar. Valve challenged the mind, offering brain teasers that required some real thought. Quantum Conundrum, on the other hand, is more about platforming puzzles. While the game does feature a number of memorable head scratchers, most of the time you'll know exactly what to do from the moment you walk into the test chamber. The tricky part is getting your jumps right and activating each dimension at just the right time. These levels are challenging, but not in the same way as Portal.
Unfortunately, it's the first-person platforming that causes the first real significant problem. I've never been a fan of making precise jumps in a first-person point-of-view, but the movements here seem especially poor. It's not always easy to line-up tricky leaps and far too often my character wouldn't even jump when I pushed the button. To be fair to Airtight Games, these are problems that also plagued Portal. However, Quantum Conundrum spends far too much time on these mediocre platforming puzzles.
Too bad that's not the only problem. Quantum Conundrum tries its hardest to be a laugh out loud experience. Sadly, the writing isn't very good. It's easy to tell where the jokes are supposed to be, but every one of them landed flat on the floor. At times I wondered if it was actor John de Lancie's (Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation) bad timing that threw off the humor, but I ultimately chalked it up to him making the most out of what he was given. I spent most of the time trying to figure out if he was intentionally trying to imitate John Lithgow or not.
As good as the puzzles were, it's the writing everybody remembers about Portal. There are so many clever bits, and not just from this monstrous artificial life constantly haranguing the player. Portal surprises the player every step of the way, often in clever ways you would never have expected. You get none of that here. Even as the game goes down the predictable twist ending path, it's handled in such a way that undermines any real emotion.
Even though a lot of its elements are a mess, there are enough worthwhile puzzles in Quantum Conundrum to make it easy to recommend. There are moments when everything comes together and you see the game's true potential. Unfortunately, all too often those glorious moments are followed up by a horribly written one-liner and the distant memory of much better first-person puzzlers. Quantum Conundrum is in serious need of some original ideas.