Let's just get this out of the way: Yes, Quantum Conundrum is a first-person puzzler, just like Portal. Yes, it was designed by Kim Swift, the project lead on Portal. And yes, it shares some of Portal's core traits: there's a physics-altering arm device, a goofy omniscient narrator, and an alarming number of buttons that need to be pushed.
But Quantum Conundrum crawls out from its spiritual predecessor's mighty shadow and stands, triumphant, as a game that's unique, raw, and brilliant in many ways. Finally, Portal has a worthy rival.
Here's Quantum Conundrum in a nutshell: You're a little boy, age 8 or 10 or something unimportant (since your avatar doesn't talk or do much of anything), and you're visiting your eccentric scientist uncle at his eccentric scientist mansion. Just as you get there, the power goes out. Your uncle, Professor Fitz Quadwrangle, says something about being trapped in another dimension. Asks you to rescue him.
So you pick up uncle Quadwrangle's Interdimensional Shift Device, a glove that you can use to manipulate the objects around you by shifting any given room into one of four different physical "dimensions." Your job is to use these dimensions to solve puzzles throughout the mansion and restore the power so you can figure out just where the hell Quadwrangle disappeared to.
- Fluffy: Makes things fluffier (read: lighter).
- Heavy: Makes things heavier.
- Slow Motion: Slows down motion.
- Reverse Gravity: Reverses gravity.
But there's a catch. You can't swap to a dimension until you find its corresponding battery—a color-coded cylinder of magic or science or something—and insert it into the generator that powers each level. Some of the mansion's rooms come complete with one or two batteries and force you to hunt for the rest. Some levels give you all of them. Some give you none.
Like any good puzzler, Quantum Conundrum starts off slowly, easing you into its world with a series of simple tasks like "make this safe lighter so you can pick it up and put it on a button" and "make this safe heavier so it can push down a button." As you progress, the difficulty ramps up, pitting you against tougher challenges like "propel this crate forward, jump on it, use it to fly across a chasm, and drop it on a button."
What's creative about these puzzles is not the objects you manipulate, but the combinations you can pull off with your newfound powers. Say you want to break a window. You can swap to Fluffy, pick up a nearby safe, throw it at the window, and then quickly swap to Heavy so it has enough weight to shatter the glass. Say you want to cross a large pit. You can swap to Fluffy, pick up a box, throw it over the gap, and then quickly swap to Slow Motion so you can hop on board and ride to the other side.
It's this type of reasoning that can help you get through some of Quantum Conundrum, but this is a game that requires equal parts intellect and dexterity. You won't just have to conceptualize solutions; you'll have to execute them. So you might know how to get a certain capsule inside a certain generator, but your fingers have to be nimble enough to pull off the right throw at the right time. You might realize that you have to con that automated laser beam into fashioning you a staircase, but you'll have to swap between dimensions in just the right pattern to pull it off.
This sort of puzzling can sometimes feel more difficult than it should, not because of any particular developer-instituted challenge but because the game's physics are wobbly. Safes and boxes tend to feel over-sensitive when you're lugging and chucking them around. An object can fall out of your hands if you accidentally brush it against a wall. Some boxes bounce a little bit too much.
Incidentally, I took advantage of these bouncy boxes to hack my way through two of the game's more head-scratching levels, both of which took place towards the end of the game and involved robots, lasers, and crates. I don't know how I was supposed to solve them, but I don't think it was by repeatedly reversing gravity and flinging crates across each room until they randomly landed where I needed them. When I'd finished, I felt the urge to e-mail Swift and the rest of her development team at Airtight Games to taunt them. "Just broke your game, losers!"
Then I got stuck on one of the next levels for close to an hour. This was frustrating, but necessary. I needed to be taught a lesson.
But tedious and overwhelmingly difficult stages are an anomaly here—the majority of the game is well-balanced and delightful. Quantum Conundrum is at its best during those moments of sheer puzzle pleasure when you're flipping between dimensions, watching the world change, solving dilemmas, and making yourself feel smart. I wish more of its puzzles had taken advantage of all four dimensions instead of just allowing you access to two or three at a time, because the ones that force you to think in multiple directions are the most satisfying of them all.
The little details are wonderful too. Every time you die, you'll see a snarky, hilarious death message about something you'll never get to see (since you are dead). Ex: "Thing #74 you will never get to experience: watching your favorite childhood TV shows get turned into terrible movies."
Perhaps Quantum Conundrum's greatest quality is this: While playing through the eight or nine hours it took me to finish, I was at times frustrated, annoyed, and even a little infuriated. But I never stopped smiling.