I debated for a while about whether this blog would be a good place to review video games. There are dozens of reviews of almost any title out there, and adding my voice to the fray didn’t seem like such a worthwhile proposition. Moreover, I usually purchase games a few months after release, once they’ve been discounted, and it takes me a while to finish them, at which point those games have almost completely left the cultural conversation. However, in the case of a short, downloadable title such as Quantum Conundrum, which I actually pre-ordered, most of that doesn’t apply. In fact, I finished the game this weekend and just haven’t had time to write about it until now. I’ve also decided that this review will assume you’ve played the game, and as such, contains spoilers. It’s not my job to convince you to buy, rent, or skip a game. (For the record, the game is well worth its $15 price tag.) My aim is to provide readers with a few points of discussion that will hopefully get them thinking about game mechanics. Without further ado, let’s dive in, shall we?

As a first-person puzzler set in an indoor environment, Quantum Conundrum is bound to be compared to the Portal series, which makes sense, since the brilliant Kim Swift designed both games. (Accordingly, Quantum Conundrum is much more like the original Portal than its sequel, which Swift didn’t work on.) Quantum Conundrum and Portal share the same structure: a silent protagonist moves through a series of interconnected puzzle rooms while a disembodied voice narrates the events via loudspeaker. But other than that, the two games seem to have been made with entirely different design philosophies. Portal spends most of its duration slowly adding more and more puzzle components and using them in different combinations, subtly guiding players and teaching them exactly what to do as it goes. Quantum Conundrum, on the other hand, gives players a couple of easy tutorial levels for each dimension and then sends them on their merry way, leaving them free to experiment (and die repeatedly).

For the most part, this philosophy works to the game’s advantage. Quantum Conundrum wants you to explore. It wants you to try out a whole bunch of different solutions to puzzles. It wants you to collect the hidden items placed throughout the levels. It wants you to stop and admire the goofy artwork that adorns the mansion’s walls (which amusingly change to reflect the dimension you’re in). Leaderboards and optimal scores are for subsequent playthroughs; the first time you experience it, Quantum Conundrum wants you to run around, lob boxes at walls, and make death-defying leaps from safe to couch, risks be damned. After all, if you die, you can just continue from the last checkpoint. Heck, with its humorous death messages, the game practically encourages you to fail.

Where this philosophy fails the game is its one nearly fatal flaw: first-person platforming. It’s one thing to encourage players to experiment with a variety of potential solutions by making death frequent and inconsequential. It’s quite another to make it nearly impossible to execute the solution to a puzzle successfully without dying twenty times first. In theory, mixing first-person platforming with the ability to change the rules of physics on the fly is a really neat idea. In practice, it makes Psychonauts’ Meat Circus look friendly by comparison. There were far too many puzzles where I figured out the solution within a couple of minutes and then spent the next ten trying to execute it. It’s maddeningly easy to miss a jump by a hair or accidentally shift to the wrong dimension, causing you to plummet to your death or be incinerated by a laser. This is a darn shame, because Quantum Conundrum’s puzzles are some of the cleverest brainteasers I’ve ever seen in a video game, easily besting the Portal series in terms of pure ingenuity. But actually making the solutions to those puzzles happen, in many cases, can be excruciating.

The worst part is that this problem has a number of simple fixes (in principle; I have no idea how difficult they would be to code). The simplest would be to make the controls tighter and more precise. There were far too many times when I would land on a platform and then run off the edge, or jump too far over a platform and land in a pit of acidic goo. Once my character’s feet left the ground, I no longer felt as if I could control him. Making the jumping, running, and mid-air trajectory adjustment more responsive would go a long way toward fixing this issue. Another way to address the problem would be to do something similar to what Portal 2 did and fix the aerial movements of both the player and the objects he or she manipulates to predefined trajectories in certain key locations. That way, the player just has to worry about timing jumps and dimensional shifts and not about jumping in precisely the correctly direction at precisely the correct height. Finally, the problem could also be resolved by allowing the player to switch between first-person and third-person cameras. Platforming is always easier when one can view the player character from behind.

There’s not much else to be said about Quantum Conundrum, other than that its ending rivals Command and Conquer: Renegade’s in its sheer awfulness. That’s not such a huge issue, because the game isn’t really focused on narrative, but I still think it was a rip-off that I never got to meet Professor Quadwrangle. The ending practically screams, “YOU’LL RESCUE HIM IN OUR UPCOMING DLC.” I’m not sure if that’s crass commercialism or a deliberate narrative choice, but either way, I don’t like it.

Overall, though, Quantum Conundrum works well enough and often enough that it’s worth its $15 price tag. The puzzles are nifty, the environments are detailed and fun to explore, and the gleeful randomness that pervades the game is enough to put a smile on the faces of even the grumpiest of cynics (such as myself). I just wish that the developers had focused their energies on making the game’s ingenuity less frustrating to experience.