The long shadow cast by Valve’s Portal over Quantum Conundrum almost threatens to suffocate Kim Swift’s latest invention. Drawing comparisons between the two is unfortunately unavoidable – they share a markedly similar DNA (environmental puzzles, weighted cubes and an unseen commentator). But whereas Portal’s out-of-nowhere arrival, sinister AI and clandestine bunker of tricks inspired awe, Conundrum’s vibrant puzzle mansion falls short of establishing its own identity.
Conundrum’s version of the Portal Gun is an Interdimensional Shift Device (ISD); a glove that enables dimensional hopping that transforms the laws of physics in the world around you into one of four alternative guises. There’s a gentle (and arguably overly drawn-out) introduction to this conceit: the Fluffy dimension (a sort of fabric-commercial-cum-heaven utopia) wherein all objects become light enough to pick-up is first introduced, shortly followed by the ability to increase item weight and transform the environment into some rusty toolshed.
Once the game breaks from this serviceable introduction, there’s an astonishing amount of depth to the puzzles. While it’s not as tightly constructed as Portal’s intense chambers, the trade-off is that there’s a heightened sense of freedom to just experiment. For instance, why use one of the provided Not-Companion Cubes to leap across a fissure (throwing it in the Fluffy world before quickly switching to a time-slowing dimension and then jumping aboard) when there’s a massive sofa you could use? Brace yourself: conventional thinking is a lie.
As the complexity of puzzle design increases, so too does a gratifying sense of accomplishment. Portal mastered the deft balance between challenge and reward, and Quantum Conundrum settles into a similarly galvanizing pace. Of course, expect rooms where a particularly perplexing puzzle halts progress momentarily, but the time spent discovering a solution only sweetens the eventual satisfaction (you’ll feel like your IQ has leapt about thirty points in as many minutes).
Outside of the meticulously crafted puzzles, the surrounding storyline is vacant of imagination. Lost in his uncle’s colourful mansion, the twelve-year-old hero wanders through indistinguishable hallways without a great sense of purpose or progression. Without the promise of a new puzzle, there’s little to compel players to venture down the next recycled corridor.
Most disappointing of all, as hard as it tries (and it sure does try), it’s just not funny. The uncle in question – providing commentary while lost in limbo – reels off various puns, heavy-handed remarks and a seemingly endless amount of woeful observations, all of which feel laboured almost immediately. In the mad scientist uncle, Conundrum finds the antithesis of GLaDOS but none of the charm. With a sharper wit to match the sophistication of the puzzle design, this jaunty adventure could have been a new dimension. As it stands, it’s just a little too familiar to one we’ve visited before.