Quantum Conundrum is the new physics-based puzzler from Portal alumnus Kim Swift, and at PAX Prime she demoed the game for the first time.
Good news: Portal's DNA runs deep in Quantum Conundrum. You can clearly discern the former's influence on the latter. The usual suspects return — test chambers, robot companions, and physics-based puzzles. But QC shakes things up; instead of shooting portals, you shift dimensions.
With its cartoony graphics and bright color palate, Quantum Conundrum is a stark departure from the dank and gloom of Portal. The setting and characters reflect QC's cheery demeanor. At least in the demo, I couldn’t detect any psychopathic AIs or irreverent British comedians. You play as a 12-year-old boy in his eccentric uncle's labyrinth of a mansion. Professor Fitz Quadwrangle (the aforementioned coot) goes missing, and it’s up to you to find him.
Professor MacGuffin…er…Quadwrangle, retrofitted his whole house to test out his experiments. This flimsy backstory propels you through Quantum Conundrum’s version of test chambers. Armed with your trusty IDS glove (Inter-dimensional Shift Device), you explore the mansion, one room at a time.
The gameplay blends Portal accoutrements with wholly original mechanics. Your IDS glove allows you to "shift" to up to four dimensions (four…quadrangle…get it?). The "fluffy" dimension turns everything cutesy; objects are lighter and…furry. Say you need to lift a safe — your "sissy little kid's arms" aren’t strong enough. So you shift to the fluffy dimension (reducing the item’s weight), then pick up and place the safe. It’s a lot simpler than it sounds. Things get interesting when you shift dynamically between multiple dimensions.
Upon first glance, this would appear to be a kid's game. The cheery aesthetics and juvenile protagonist suggest a thematic departure from Portal. But Quantum Conundrum’s influences — Tim Burton, Dr. Seuss, the Winchester House — extend further than preschool. Its cutesy exterior belies an exceptionally difficult game.
The story was a bit threadbare, but I was only privy to the demo…more specifically, a tech demo. The final release could be a paragon of literary excellence – I’d expect nothing less. Without Portal's meme-friendly dialogue, that game would’ve been good but not a cultural landmark. Nerds wouldn’t quote it with the same vigor that they reference Monty Python and The Simpsons. Hopefully, that lesson wasn't lost on Swift.
I’m eager to get my hands on Quantum Conundrum. If Airtight Games welds an engaging narrative to the existing template, we’re in for something special…maybe "Game of the Year" special. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait till next year: Quantum Conundrum is set for release as a downloadable title on PSN/Xbox Live/Steam in early 2012.