Quantum Conundrum and Trine 2 - Modern Indie Physics Puzzlers

Physics puzzlers are all the rage these days. I suppose you can partially credit Portal with really bringing the physics puzzle genre to the forefront, but indie studios have been cranking out physics puzzle games by the truckload for years now, so it's not fair to give Valve all the credit.

During the Steam summer sale I ended up picking up Trine 2, and during Xbox Live Summer of Arcade I grabbed Quantum Conundrum. Although they're very different games at first glance, at their core they are both different takes on platforming physics puzzle games.

Trine 2 shares quite a few similarities with its predecessor, and the basic theme has a lot in common with the SNES classic The Lost Vikings. You control 3 characters and have to navigate various obstacles and challenges by playing to their strengths. The knight is a pretty standard "HULK SMASH" kind of character - his specialty is fighting enemies and occasionally breaking objects in the environment. The thief character specializes in ranged attacks and grappling hook jumps. The wizard can summon planks and crates which can be strategically placed to overcome obstacles, solve puzzles, and squish monsters. He can also use a telekinesis power to move various objects around the screen. At any point you can swap between the three characters.

In the previous game, the levels seemed relatively balanced between the three characters. There were definitely times when the thief's grappling hook was the right answer, and certainly areas where the knight's combat acumen was appropriate. Trine 2, however, seems very wizard-focused. The knight still gets his occasional chance to shine in combat, but there's very little for the thief to do. There's not nearly as much vertical movement, and surfaces where the grappling hook can stick seem few and far between.

It's kind of sad, then, that the physics puzzles are just so floaty/flaky here. Most of the time I ended up solving puzzles by sort of jamming a random assortment of planks and cubes into whatever machinery or gaps are in my way. There's a couple of annoying new puzzle bits in play here as well. One is a sort of knock-off Portal device that allows you to move a pair of rings around the area, and anything that goes into one ring comes out the other.

However, they only work if objects are sent through them one way, and this can be quite confusing. The conservation of motion doesn't feel quite right either, with objects sort of slowly losing momentum or going askew if you're not careful. Sometimes you can stand on the edge of the ring and use it as a step, and sometimes you can't. Finally, you can only move them by interacting with levers in the environment, and getting to the correct lever and moving the portals in the correct orientation and in the correct locations is frustrating rather than fun.

Secondly, there are these fire-spitting plants scattered about. With careful timing, or the knight's shield, you can dodge their fire. However, they fire in weird patterns that don't seem to sync up with each other. There are also platforms that move or disappear in a particular rhythm that require careful timing. I can't tell you the number of times I got stuck and died because the platform I needed to jump to was down at the only moment when the plants weren't firing. I endured, but I didn't enjoy these segments.

The theme of floaty and flaky physics extends into Quantum Conundrum, my second indie physics puzzler of the month. It's pretty easy to draw parallels between this game and the Portal series - both are first-person physics puzzlers where you must navigate a series of challenging rooms with a reality-bending contraption and a disembodied mad scientist egging you on.

The real difference here is that the difficulty and core gameplay focus are completely different. Portal is about figuring out puzzles, and understanding the properties of the physics tools you've been given to overcome obstacles. Valve even admits in some of the commentary tracks on some of the courses that in multiple cases the game will "cheat" in your favor - lining up portals that are just a little off, for instance.

Quantum Conundrum's difficulty comes primarily from its platforming elements. Typically, solving the physics problem is only the first step - you've got to then convince the game engine that you've executed that solution correctly. Most of the time, the really tricky parts of puzzles are the ones where you're expected to jump from object to object in the environment. I can't count the number of times the game didn't count my jump because the edge of my toes were a bit too far over when I pressed the jump button. Many of the puzzles depend on precise timing or aim. Get used to the "game over" screen as you make small errors that end with you drowning or getting squished.

Even worse are the "ride the reverse gravity object" puzzles, where you're expected to surf along on an object that you keep aloft by reversing gravity periodically. Touching the ceiling is instant death, as you just clip right through whatever you're riding. You can't really see both the ceiling and the floor in most cases, so you're kind of guessing as to what's going on. On top of this, gravity takes a second to kick in when you switch. Points for realism here, but it's really hard to work with a very dynamic system like this when the game expects exacting precision.

The end result is a game that's just needlessly frustrating. It's clever and quirky at first glance, but there's not enough problem solving and too much finicky platforming to be a great game. I found myself feeling frustrated far more often than I felt smart, and that's just no fun at all.