Quantum Conundrum

This is a Portal clone, but, unlike Gravitas, not a good one. It’s a physics puzzler where you must navigate a mad scientist’s lab while a sardonic narrator comments on your every action, all clear elements of Portal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to understand what made those elements so effective in Portal, and completely fumbles the execution.

So, the narrator. Portal builds up nicely to revealing GLaDOS as the antagonist. You are suspicious of her from the start: You don’t know who she is, why you’re here, or what she really wants from you. Her advice is bizarre and unreliable as often as it’s helpful, creating tension where you don’t know if she’s genuinely malfunctioning or deliberately trying to sabotage you. She does things that seem pointlessly cruel, like forcing you to burn the companion cube. The player gains an antagonistic attitude towards GLaDOS very organically. It builds up subtly, to the point where the reveal doesn’t come as a surprise at all.

In Quantum Conundrum, the narrator isn’t even the antagonist at all. He is explicitly good and trying to help you, he’s just kind of a dick; and as any fan of media can tell you, being kind of a dick is a far worse crime for a character than murder. While GLaDOS’ insults and mind games are subtle and genuinely clever, Quadwrangle just repeats the same boring, superficial insults about you being a dumb kid over and over. Also, he will outright give you the solutions to several puzzles before you even have a chance to try them, which is absolutely infuriating and makes it feel like the game shares his opinion about the player’s stupidity. While GLaDOS’ dialogue is a crucial part of Portal‘s atmosphere, here I just kept wishing I could mute Quadwrangle.

Then there’s the setting. In Portal, you were given a very reasonable explanation for why the rooms were all clearly designed around puzzle logic: They are explicitly in-universe logic tests. You also get tongue-in-cheek explanations for why they’re so deadly. In Quantum Conundrum, there’s no explanation for what use Quadwrangle could possibly have for filling his house with lasers and bottomless pits, or why his rooms can only be traversed through precise use of a newly-invented puzzle device. The whole thing just stretches my suspension of disbelief a little too far.

But okay, that’s all forgivable as long as the game itself is good. Unfortunately, it chose to double down on Portal‘s worst mechanics while completely phoning in everything new it brought to the table. The central gimmick is that you can shift reality between different dimensions that have different physical properties: you can make things lighter or heavier, slow down time, or reverse gravity. Unfortunately, despite technically giving you more actions than in Portal, they’re a lot less interesting and the game barely uses them. See, you can only have one shift active at a time, and the shifts only affect other objects, not yourself; so in practice, the puzzles all have to be pretty simple. Portal‘s puzzles were genuinely brain-bending in how they made you rethink your spatial intuition, but there are no moments like that here. There are really only a few interesting things you can do, which the game drags out over far too many puzzles. There must have been at least 20 puzzles where the solution was entirely some variation on antigravity surfing, for instance, which was cool the first time but not the twentieth. It’s almost always obvious what you have to do, the only difficulty is in executing it.

Because oh boy is execution difficult. You know how frustrating it was in Portal when your cubes didn’t align perfectly with the pressure plates or turrets veered off in unexpected directions because your trajectory was imperceptibly off? That’s every single puzzle in this game. So many puzzles revolve around perfect positioning of objects coupled with perfect timing of dimension shifting. There is an entire mechanic reused constantly throughout the back half of the game that requires throwing an object at the exact right trajectory, then immediately shifting to the slow-mo dimension so you can jump onto it while it’s in midair and riding it across a gap. Threw it too high for your pitiful jump range? Failure. Threw it too low for it to reach the target? Failure. Pressed the slow-mo button a fraction of a second too late? Failure. Do it all again. Absolutely infuriating.

And there is so much first-person platforming. So. Much. Including switching dimensions mid-platforming — hope you like playing Twister with your fingers! I thought Half-Life taught people to not do this. Why is this still a thing.

The ending is also completely phoned-in. Remember how Portal ended with an honest-to-god boss fight? This game’s climactic final challenge is… performing a single simple action you’ve done dozens of times in previous puzzles. Then your reward is a terrible non-ending that’s just shameless sequel bait.

Sooo yeah, this was incredibly frustrating and disappointing. I’m normally of the “Two cakes!” mindset when it comes to derivatives of media I like, but this managed to screw it up so badly the comparison serves only to hurt it further.

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