The pressure's got to be high for Portal lead designer Kim Swift. After creating one of the most influential games of the generation, Swift decided to leave the company that put Gordon Freeman on the map and pursue her own venture at indie studio Airtight Games.
Quantum Conundrum, Swift's first title since GLaDOS' debut, may not be a million miles away from Portal with its focus on first person physics-based puzzling. But it contains the unique brainteasers and adorable humor that made her last game such a rousing success (what? You thought I was going to call it a triumph?).
You play as a boy sent to stay at your uncle's manor for the weekend while your parents get some R & R. Given your uncle's shock of grey hair, white lab coat, and moniker - the delightfully improbable Professor Quadwrangle - it should come as no surprise that he's a mad scientist.
While this concept is ripe with Southern gothic connotations, Quantum Conundrum takes this in a friendlier direction. He's ostensibly more of a Nutty Professor than a Dr. Frankenstein, and as it turns out, he was working on a device to travel between different dimensions until he got stuck in another one, leaving you to find him.
Shortly after arriving you discover his Inter-Dimensional Shift device (IDS device). This allows you to dynamically travel between alternate dimensions that maintain the same physical properties as your current environment, but that influence things like time and gravity.
In order to swap between dimensions, you must find an IDS battery that acts as a wi-fi hotspot for inter-dimensionality, and then place it in a terminal giving you access to that realm at the touch of a button.
Thanks to your uncle's scientific obsessions, the manor house has been retrofitted with various chambers to test his hypotheses. This essentially turns it into a bunch of puzzle rooms not unlike Swift's most well known work (though unlike Portal the visual style of is bright and colourful, giving it a gentle cartoon-like quality befitting of its family friendly subject matter).
To ensure you're always prepared for what may come, each puzzle is equipped with a Dynamic Object Linear Ligation Interface, or DOLLI for short. She's a cloning device portrayed as a silent metal face with a big shiny tongue that's used to make sure his experiments run properly. Helpfully, she'll always give you the necessary components for the job, should you drop a vital object into a pool of acid for example.
The first dimension thrown up is the fluffy one. Here, everything is covered in a layer of white fur and weighs very little. Heavy objects like safes can be moved so you can jump on top of them, or they can be placed on weight sensitive plates. Need to break a glass wall? Pick up a safe in the fluffy dimension, throw it and then quickly switch back to the original dimension so its weight will smash through the wall.
Next up is the self-explanatory anti-gravity dimension. Here we learn the basics of using safes as elevators by reversing their gravity so we can ride them up or use them to hit switches on the ceiling. Another dimension slows down the action by a factor of 20, bathing everything in sepia to underline the effect.
Puzzles get increasingly more complex as new areas are explored, and Quantum Conundrum takes great pleasure in spinning the solutions across various dimensions. One challenge tasks us with retrieving a safe past some lasers; getting to the safe is easy, but we need to bring a fluffy dimension battery to a terminal next to it, and the lasers are assigned to vaporise it.
The solution involves using slow motion to suspend a box in midair to block an activation beam in the previous room, cutting off the laser's power in the room with the safe. Retrieving the safe requires picking it up and throwing it in fluffy dimension, then switching back to slow motion to disable the lasers again before the safe gets fried.
Eventually we have to use all these powers in conjunction with one another. Switching to the fluffy dimension allows us to throw a safe in the air, and a quick switch to the slow motion dimension allows us to jump atop it as it flies through the air. Finally, toggling between the anti-gravity dimension and the normal world keeps the safe airborne as it bobbles up and down, allowing us to surf it to our destination.
Aside from continuing Portal's penchant for puzzles, Quantum Conundrum maintains a sense of infectious fun. In a cute touch, the paintings on the wall change based on what dimensions you're in. Portraits of Professor Quadwrangle look noble and dignified in the normal world, but in fluffy dimension he's wearing a bunny suit.
In anti-gravity only his feet are shown near the top of the frame, while in the slow motion dimension he's impatiently looking at his watch. Paintings of his monocle-sporting cat, goldfish, and an adorable Shih Tzu-like creature named IKE (an anagram for Inter-dimensional Kinetic Entity, who can see every dimension at once) change as well with increasingly preposterous results.
If there's one thing missing from Quantum Conundrum it's any signs of life. Portal had GLaDOS mocking us throughout, and its sterile environments and vaguely apocalyptic setting complemented Chell's isolation. Quantum Conundrum's loneliness feels a bit at odds with its warm colours, though Swift ensures us that Professor Quadwrangle will find ways to communicate with us. Sadly, when I asked if we'd get to meet the professor's cat she said no.
Swift has revealed there will be no combat or violence in the game as she wanted Quantum Conundrum to be appropriate for everyone, citing some of her fondest gaming memories of playing videogames with her father as a child. When I asked if that meant there'd be any co-op she admitted that while they have plenty of ideas they'd love to explore further, a co-op mode won't be present at launch.
Quantum Conundrum may not have the immediate face-palming simplicity of Portal, but its deceptively complicated puzzle design and cutesy humor appear to be a worthwhile follow-up. For all we know, next year everyone will complain that what Gordon Freeman really needs is a fluffy gun.