Of all the brainteasers on offer in Quantum Conundrum, a new downloadable puzzle game, the toughest one to crack is how to discuss it without comparisons to Portal. Both are first-person platformers that eschew combat in favor of mind-bending spatial chicanery. Both are lighthearted in tone, featuring an omnipresent narrator who's more interested in making wisecracks than in helping your mute protagonist. And, oh yeah, both games were designed by Kim Swift, the wunderkind whose student project Narbacular Drop caught the attention of Valve Software and brought her to prominence to begin with. So, yes, Portal looms large, and not always to the benefit of Quantum Conundrum.
It's not as though the newer game lacks ambition. The premise: as the 12-year-old nephew of a vanished inventor named Professor Quadwrangle, you set out on an inter-dimensional rescue mission through the increasingly convoluted corridors of his mansion. Even for a mad scientist, the place is formless and weird, less like a home than a series of test chambers. (Damn! There's that Portal comparison again.) But it's a striking setting all the same, and — with its bright colors, disjointed lines, and cartoon liveliness — a far cry from the dour game settings we're accustomed to.
Each room presents a puzzle to be solved by manipulating the environment across four dimensions. A typical example: enter the "fluffy" dimension, which makes everything weigh 1/10 as much, and pick up a safe. Throw it toward a laser grid and immediately switch to the "heavy" dimension, which makes it 10 times as dense as usual, and thus, impervious to the lasers that would fry it in any other dimension. Later puzzles that are based on slowing time to a crawl achieve a certain majesty, although there's no getting around the fact that the fundamental solution to everything comes down to throwing shit across gaps, every single time.
BLAH BLAH BLAH Long corridors with nothing for the player to do exist purely so that there's enough time for the dialogue to play.
The puzzles are inspired, but Quantum Conundrum is rough around the edges. Too often players are required to make pinpoint jumps in order to progress, something I thought we had agreed to stop doing in first-person games about 15 years ago. The play control isn't up to the task. It's all too easy to plunge to an immediate death, which is perverse enough considering that your avatar is a pre-teen, and makes certain sequences exercises in teeth-gritting frustration.
All the while, Quadwrangle observes and comments on the action. What little storyline there is comes from his dialogue, but his interjections are frequently silly rather than funny, and often irrelevant. Nor are they well integrated into the experience. Long corridors with nothing for the player to do exist purely so that there's enough time for the dialogue to play. Even so, Quadwrangle has an annoying habit of cutting himself off mid-sentence as soon as the player triggers his next line.
Fair or not, Quantum Conundrum would come off better without Portal as a measuring stick. Few developers have Valve's reputation for fine-tuning and quality assurance, not to mention the caliber of writer they can afford to hire. Still, it only takes one bright talent to make a game worthy of notice, and in Kim Swift, Airtight Games has that. One wonders what she could do with the resources of a Valve Software.
Oh, right. She made Portal.