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Quantum Conundrum preview: Inter-dimensional charm

Recent Airtight Games convert Kim Swift's new downloadable title, Quantum Conundrum, is just about as charming as charming can be. You probably could have guessed that based on Swift's notably Portal-infused background, not to mention the pitch-perfect, cartoonish design aesthetic that pervades the manor home in which the game is set. But you really have to see its dimension shifting in action to fully understand it.

The pitch is this: Using an "Inter-dimensional Shift Device," a young boy must traverse the sprawling mansion of his mad scientist uncle, Dr. Fitz Quadwrangle, to discover said relative's whereabouts. The device in question allows the user to shift each of the puzzle-filled rooms between four dimensions to achieve goals, changing the properties of each of the objects contained therein. It's a lot less complicated once you see it in action, until it gets a whole lot more complicated.

Gallery: Quantum Conundrum (PAX 2011) | 7 Photos

The first of these otherworldly rifts I was showed was the Fluffy Dimension, which coats the world in a friendly layer of pink fur -- and also makes heavy objects ten times lighter than usual. By switching to Fluffy, our pint-sized hero can lift heavy safes to use as stair-steps to higher platforms. He can also throw heavy items to smash through glass, provided he changes its consistency to Un-Fluffy before it makes contact.

Then there's the Slow Motion Dimension, which allows you to slow the roll of objects without bringing down your own hasty, boyish stride. In my demo, the player disabled a security system by blocking its energizing laser with box. He activated Slow Motion and dropped the box, leaving him with enough time to get past the security system before the laser was left unobstructed. In another trial, a stack of boxes is knocked down in front of a massive gap. As it topples into the chasm, the player can go Slow Motion, and use the stack as a precarious bridge.

Though the two Dimensions can't be used at the same time -- "That would implode the universe," Swift rationally explained -- they can be used in concert. Players can go Fluffy to lift a heavy safe and throw it across a gap, then go into Slow Motion and use the thrown safe as a moving platform. Or, you could just pick up a box, throw it, slow time, and grab it again, playing a rousing game of catch with yourself.

The third tool at your disposal is the Reverse Gravity Dimension, which, you know, allows you to put things that are on the floor on the ceiling. Or, you could use it in a rapid off-on pattern to preserve a thrown object's forward momentum, sending it sailing through the air in an erratic sine wave. Or you could use it to turn a heavy safe into an upward-moving platform, carrying you safely to a high platform. Or, maybe not-so-safely, in the event you don't dismount the platform before it reaches the ceiling. (A bit of Slow Motion helps you make your departure.)

There's a fourth dimension as well, though it wasn't shown to me during the preview. That's fortunate, because the three presented were more than enough to fry my frontal lobe.

Swift's lineage as a Portal level designer could be seen clearly in the demo I was shown. There's a kind of nonlinear thinking required here that doesn't exist in too many other titles. For instance, in some puzzles, you have to find batteries that unlock your suite of dimension-shifting abilities. I can only imagine the paths Airtight Games will be able to weave using this limitation. Actually, I can't, and that's what I'm excited about.

The world of Quandwrangle Manor looks like it'll be just as much a character as Aperture was for Portal. The family portraits nailed to every wall change with the Dimensions -- Dr. Fitz, for instance, floats to the ceiling in Reverse Gravity mode, throws on a bunny suit in Fluffy mode, and looks impatiently at his watch in Slow Motion mode. His cat, Widget (which has become increasingly deformed thanks to botched cloning experiments), also looks at his watch in Slow Motion mode, as does Widget's pet goldfish.

He looks at his tiny fish watch.

Everything looks to be in place for Quantum Conundrum to be a delightful downloadable gem when it launches on XBLA, PSN and Steam early next year. So long as the unannounced dimension isn't something that strays from the quirky, wonderful aesthetic Swift and her team have crafted -- a Hyperviolent Gun Dimension, for instance -- this one looks like a surefire delight.

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