Quantum Conundrum review: First rule of physics, don't talk about physics

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Quantum Conundrum review: First rule of physics, don't talk about physics
Back in February, Airtight Games creative director Kim Swift told us that she wanted Quantum Conundrum to play like a Saturday-morning cartoon – lighthearted with a slapstick edge, similar to Looney Tunes or Cartoon Network programming. This may be why I found it so unnerving that Quantum Conundrum reminded me more of Fight Club than any kid-friendly cartoons.

The standard-edition DVD of 2002's Fight Club has a looping menu that plays a round of light, elevator-style percussion music while the screen flickers invitingly on the Play button; this lasts just long enough to lull the passive listener into a false sense of tranquility, before it smashes into a measure of jarring electrical guitar and pulsating images for a few terrible seconds. Then the screen clears, and the torture repeats.

One night in my wayward youth, I fell asleep watching this Fight Club DVD. For hours after the movie had finished and returned to the menu, I would be jolted awake just enough to know nothing about what was going on, only to immediately fall back asleep once the soothing interlude picked up again. For hours. It was disorienting, sinister and, looking back on it, kind of hilarious.

Quantum Conundrum's soundtrack may be similar to Fight Club's menu screen's, but the game itself rides those same waves of frustration, persistence and disjointed comedy – the game is lovely, but the story is jarring. Some of its story elements are almost funny, some of the narrative almost make sense, all of it almost reaches a realm of lucid clarity. And yes, it does this for hours.%Gallery-158844%Quantum Conundrum is designed precisely how Swift described her vision: It's fun, cartoony and quirky, with overstuffed cushions and extreme architectural angles comprising the house of professor Fitz Quadwrangle, an eccentric inventor and the protagonist's uncle. The main character is his unseen nephew, 10 years old, who comes to visit and finds Uncle Fitz is lost in a pocket dimension somewhere deep within the mansion, though the professor can still see, hear and talk to his nephew.

The nephew uses the Inter-Dimensional Shift device, or IDS, to manipulate physics in four ways, as he discovers each property throughout the game: Fluffy dimension makes everything lighter, heavy dimension does exactly what it says, slow-mo makes everything but the nephew move super-slow and reverse gravity dimension throws all un-bolted objects to the ceiling.

Since the main character is a child, the term "hand-holding" seems appropriate when describing Quantum Conundrum's mechanics. The professor chatters constantly, urging his nephew to go up the stairs, through that door there, or providing obvious hints to puzzles in the guise of eccentric backstories that, while helpful, are unnecessary and rarely as funny as they were meant to be. The only time I laughed out loud, sincerely, was when I first died and got a hint of that malicious edge Swift promised us: Each time the nephew dies, a list pops up labeled "Thing #[whatever] you will never experience," and it describes various life events that he will never achieve, such as "Feeling the crisp air of a new spring day," "Winning the Kentucky Derby" and "Getting to da choppa."

Considering many of the levels are constructed with trial and (mostly) error in mind, I saw an entire life of things this boy would never get to do, had he not been connected to an autosave feature. It was a nice touch.

One reason the humor generally falls flat is because the story itself feels tacked on, as if Airtight built the house, designed the IDS, made some puzzles and then wrote a script around all of that. We've seen barebones story work well in physics-puzzle games, but Airtight took it one step further than "almost no story," to "almost almost no story," giving us a nameless, soundless, bodiless protagonist and an omniscient voice glued together by a tenuous family relationship. Blueprint-stylized cut-scenes attempt to flesh out the nephew and his uncle, but in the end I felt no empathy toward either character and could have happily played the game without their involvement at all.

To be fair, this says a lot for the quality of the puzzles, which is where Quantum Conundrum truly excels.

Since this is reaching ridiculously unavoidable levels, we'll get the Obligatory Comparisons To Portal out of the way here: Swift planted the seed that became Portal, and in Quantum Conundrum she doesn't attempt to disguise the fact that those ideas were hers. Quantum Conundrum features bright red buttons that connect to various doors and matter machines, pressurized platforms activated by weighted cubes, lasers, human-like robots in every room and familiar sound effects, all wrapped up in a first-person physics-based shooter. Again, to revert to playground rules of game development, Swift did these things first, and there's really no reason to dislike anything that can be categorized as "more Portal."

The details in each level demonstrate Airtight's focus on creating a puzzle game first and a captivating story second (or third). Minute changes in physics or timing alter every aspect of the puzzles, including how the materials tumble out of the ever-present DOLLI machines, and it is just enough to remind me that, yeah, I control the fundamental principles that compose everything in this room. Each puzzle contains a combination of furniture or safes to manipulate, statically or as they fly through the air, and additional elements such as conveyor belts, doors, fans and spheres of science juice.

Quantum Conundrum review First rule of physics, don't talk about it

As is standard, the puzzles increase in difficulty as the game progresses and the nephew unlocks more dimensions, but there are a few outliers that almost put my mouse through the screen. The first basketball level stands out in particular: A giant vat, four spring-pressurized platforms, a safe and a science-juice sphere that has to be launched into the top of the vat. I felt as if I tried every combination of every platform at least twice, with me on one side of the room and the sphere on the other, zooming into each other, parallel, crosswise, bouncing endlessly as I shifted between heavy and fluffy dimensions, glaring at the seemingly unreachable vat.

I put the mouse down and walked away. When I came back 15 minutes later, the first solution I tried worked, and I felt like an idiot for not attempting the simple answer first. In fact, I still feel pretty idiotic for that one.

That's the mark of a quality puzzler, though – in hindsight, the solutions are always obvious, but in action, they're buried in layers of logic and luck.

By the time I had all four dimensions at my disposal, I was an IDS god, throwing safes and couches with abandon and soaring across vast laboratory ruins with precise ease. It's a shame I had to concern myself with what the flustered narrator wanted me to do.

Quantum Conundrum demonstrates Swift's ability to conceive and deliver a robust physics-puzzler, but in regards to her past work on Portal, it also highlights Valve's prowess as an engaging, sophisticated storytelling machine. Airtight couldn't capture that essence, and frankly, it shouldn't have tried.

But, if you can ignore the jarring, clipped dialogue and attempted story, play Quantum Conundrum to enjoy the tranquility of practiced physics – tranquility that may frustrate you to the point of destroying a beautiful keyboard, but tranquility nonetheless.

This review is based on a Steam download of the PC version of Quantum Conundrum, provided by Square Enix.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.
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