After leaving Valve, Portal creator Kim Swift joined Airtight Games and developed a new game, one with a silent protagonist who navigates a series of puzzle challenges with the help of a physics-bending device and a disembodied voice. And if you’ve played Portal, that may sound familiar. Despite cleaving so closely to a successful model, Quantum Conundrum’s charm and clever mechanics keep it from coming off as derivative.
You play as a 12-year-old boy who’s been dumped at his uncle’s manor. Unfortunately, your neglectful mother didn’t bother to ensure her brother was home, or even on this plane of existence, before leaving. Professor Quadwrangle is stuck in some form of limbo after his latest mad science experiment went wrong, and you’re stuck trying to rescue him by navigating a series of sealed-off rooms. Of course, this can only be done with the help of the Interdimensional Shift Device that started the whole mess.
You’re led along with condescending instructions and occasional faint praise from your uncle, who’s voiced by the perpetually sarcastic John de Lancie of Star Trek fame. You advance though the world by activating fantastical devices, which open doors into new areas that your uncle must have been reaching by jetpack. Conundrum’s hook is its clever use of dimensional rifts, which you use to alter the properties of the environment. Open up the fluffy dimension, for instance, and heavy furniture becomes light enough for you to tote around. Change to the heavy dimension, and a cardboard box can smash through a plate of glass or deflect a laser beam.
Wrapping your head around the malleability of physics is the biggest challenge, as you have to get used to weirdness like fans that blow safes into the air so you can hop them like stairs. The other really big challenge is timing, as you’ll often need to quickly jump between dimensions to achieve a desired effect, like giving heft to an object mid-throw or making something vulnerable just as a laser is about to cut through it. It can take a lot of trial and error to figure out what you need to do, and even more to execute it, but the satisfaction of putting everything together is worth the head-scratching.
The first-person perspective makes sections that involve a lot of jumping and landing on objects difficult, but your moves never need to be so precise that it becomes truly frustrating. Checkpoints come very regularly, so you won’t have to replay much on the occasions you fall to your death. The amusing messages about things your dead child character will never get to experience help pass the reload time. It’s nearly impossible for your experimentation to render a level unbeatable, but if you want to start from scratch, the game makes that easy too.
The scenery is filled with plenty of quirky charm. There are object-cloning robots that look like they’re vomiting up safes (and lolling their tongues after), and an adorable interdimensional critter named Ike seems to find amusement in your trials. Your uncle provides you with snippets of family history as you walk through rooms with creepy portraits of family members and pets. The game never reaches the comedic or dramatic highs found in Portal, and Quadwrangle can’t help but seem like a G-rated version of Portal’s famously menacing artificial intelligence, GLaDOS. But that’s a small complaint for an otherwise enjoyable and challenging game.