Threepenny Thursday – Quantum Conundrum

6 Sep

Anybody remember The Incredible Machine?

Yeah that’s it! Oh, such a flood of memories! Evenings in the dusky Peterborough heights, baseball-hatted, bespectacled eight-year old me, sitting in the glow of Nana’s PowerPC like a panting dog staring into the oven. My little brain was sizzlin’ with mind-bending puzzles, rudimentary physics, and limitless creativity. Anyone who ever played this game knows exactly what I mean – and seeing it now is like a sucker punch right in the nostalgia node, ain’t it.

Nostalgia is like the Tom Hanks of emotions: it’s always pleasant, always welcome, and always reminding you that the old things are still the best. And when new media stroke that glistening lobe I can’t help but take a shining to them. It’s a dangerous tightrope to walk, though – if you can’t live up to those precious moments you’re referencing, you’re dead in the water. You better be ready with the big guns if you intend to usurp my childhood.

Quantum Conundrum is a recent puzzle game that does it right: it takes cues from the legends of the past, but creates a new and unique experience that’s both fresh and satisfying.

The premise is pretty straightforward: it’s a first-person puzzle platformer in which you play as the nephew of eccentric inventor Professor Fitz Quadwrangle, on a visit to his sprawling mad-science manor. Quadwrangle is conducting an experiment which goes awry and he is locked in a parallel dimension. You must rescue him by traversing each wing of the seemingly endless mansion and solving physics-based puzzles along the way, with the help of his spangly Power Glove.

The central mechanic, which the glove allows you to control, is the shifting of dimensions in each room of the mansion: need to pick up that steel safe? Switch to the Fluffy Dimension, where everything is bouncy, pink, and padded. Need to squeeze through those alternating rapid-fire laser beams? Flip to Slow Motion Dimension, where everything moves really fast hooooooo almost had you for a second there. The result is some truly perplexing gameplay challenges, wherein picking up and throwing a Fluffy object and switching to Slow Motion and jumping across a chasm and switching back to Fluffy and catching it all while riding a flying couch in a gentle arc towards a pit of death is relatively commonplace.

If this all sounds a little familiar, there’s a good reason: the director of Quantum Conundrum is a very awesome lady by the name of Kim Swift who, if you’re not aware, made Portal. Quantum Conundrum positively reeks of her game design, and the two titles share more than a few similarities. They’re both first-person, they both have faceless characters who use devices to manipulate the environment, they both feature linear successions of chambers in which a physics puzzle must be solved to advance. They both have a voice over an intercom giving you questionable advice and feedback, and doing the heavy lifting in terms of narrative exposition and humourous tone. Bottom line: they’re very similar games. This doesn’t mean two things: a) that Quantum Conundrum‘s effect is lessened by its likeness to Portal, and b) that Quantum Conundrum is any less original or fun.

The most important thing about it to me, beyond its excellent design and gameplay, is its tone. It really nails the whole “wacky futuristic cartoony mad-science” thing, something I haven’t enjoyed in a game since…well, since The Incredible Machine. John de Lancie does a great job as the voice of Professor Quadwrangle, sounding like a cross between John Lithgow and Doctor Frankenstein, and the little touches are nice – especially the way the paintings around the manor subtly change when you shift dimensions. The internet hivemind have taken to labelling it as a spiritual successor to Portal, but that’s a comparison that only works in a mechanical sense. In all the ways that matter (to the point I’m trying to make), Quantum Conundrum is much more like a spiritual successor to The Incredible Machine. Sure, they’re completely different games from completely different eras. But when I solved a puzzle in Quantum Conundrum, I swear I could feel my little eight-year-old self cackling with savage glee.

I’m gonna slice off half a Jeff here because I found it disappointingly short; like some others I thought it was over too soon and I was very sad. I understand there’s some DLC on the way, though, which is frustrating and reassuring in equal measure. It scrapes by with only the slightest streak on its gleaming freshly-waxed paintjob. It’s disarming, charming, difficult, rewarding, and most importantly, utterly nutterly-butterly. Buy it! Play it! Be a child again! Your eight-year-old doppelgänger will thank you.

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