Monday, 13 August 2012

Q.U.B.E

The Title Screen

Introduction
Q.U.B.E (or Quick Understanding of Block Extrusion) is a first-person, platforming puzzle game by indie developer Toxic Games. It was released for Steam in 2012 and is the conclusion of a project started by some university students.


The First Thing
Any first-person puzzle game will nearly always be compared to the king of the genre, Portal. But Q.U.B.E. goes further than vague thematic similarities; the sterile white environment, the test chambers, the simplistic weapon system tied to puzzles, etc. It is not inherently bad, but it is the first thing that immediately springs to mind (at least, to anyone who is mildly familiar with Portal).

Manipulate blocks with the gloves

Plot & Devices
There is a noticeable absence of story. The character wakes up in a strange environment wearing odd gloves and the mystery of the situation is supposed to be reflected by the player. The only indication of the general setting is handled in the final cinematic, although the player can infer some information from occasional details. For example, as the player progresses there is a lot of broken test chambers leading to the idea that all is not quite right - but that is the closest the player comes to any plot.

There are no other characters, or imagery of any kind. The protagonist is personality-less and the gloves are asexual enough that they do not define the character in any way.


The Game
The gameplay is simple. The player has a left glove (left click), a right glove (right click) and a targeting reticule. There is no range on the gloves and the player just has to be aiming at the block in question they'd like to manipulate. The left glove will usually cause a block to extrude and the right glove will cause the block to retract. Blocks will extrude in different ways and it is through these manipulations that the player will solve various puzzles and proceed through the test chambers.

The left glove interacting with the yellow blocks

It is probably easiest to list the blocks :
  • Red : Extends one block-length at a time, to a maximum of three lengths. 
  • Yellow : Found in groups of three. The block selected will extrude the furthest.
  • Blue : Once retracted will strongly spring up when touched, propelling any object or character on it into the air.
  • Purple : Can be used to rotate the wall, or floor, that the blocks are on.
  • Green : Linked to the creation of green blocks that are required to solve puzzles; often used as a form of 'key'.
These basic blocks that will feature in virtually all puzzles, and their colours will too. The key is to find the right succession of manipulations that will allow the player to pass. This can either be a platforming solution where the player must use the blocks to traverse an obstacle, or a key based solution where a certain block, or ball, must be placed on an exact location to open the exit. I never encountered any failure states, such as death, and any puzzle that requires complex movement can be reset with a large button on the wall.

To keep the gameplay from becoming monotonous new scenarios are introduced over time, whilst using the basics from the previous puzzles. At one point the lights go out and the player must interact with switches to illuminate blocks, the trick being that only one block will be lit up at a time so the player must remember where the various blocks are after manipulation.

Illuminating the yellow blocks in the dark

Other puzzle types the player will encounter feature magnetic buttons, re-directional lasers and robotic balls that turn to the right when they encounter an immovable object. Finally towards the end puzzles are comprised of 'blank' blocks which can be assigned and re-assigned colours by the player. Sometimes puzzles will have simple colour combination, i.e. using something red and yellow to activate something orange.

Graphically the game is not intensive as gameplay takes place in enclosed chambers, but there is an overall high quality feel to the visuals. The colours are vibrant and there has been some definite thought given to visually conveying to the player the basics to solve puzzles. The soundtrack is atmospheric and the limited sound effects are very appropriate - but there is no voice acting.

As this is made for PC it has good mouse and keyboard support, although there are not that many keys to rebind. The player can move, strafe and jump one block length up; nothing else. The FOV is set at 90, but Q.U.B.E. resisted my attempts to set it higher and the game ran at a solid 60FPS from start to finish.

Rotating walls with the purple blocks

Wrap Up & Negatives
The game is a highly competent puzzle game, but has no soul. I wanted to avoid comparing it to Portal but it really is the easiest way to illustrate the main negative of this game. Portal was a short game too, but it was full to the brim with personality. There was GLaDOS and the robotic announcer that made the player laugh and promoted enjoyment. I would go as far to say that the "puzzles" are a secondary reason to play Portal, but with Q.U.B.E. there is only puzzles. The ending sequence is an attempt to give some vague story/surprise, but it feels a little pointless.

I felt that the difficulty curve was a bit all over the place. Most of the time there is one solution to each puzzle, but occasionally different approaches can be taken. The puzzles are conceptually straightforward, but some of them can be surprisingly difficult and this can often because of inaccurate mechanics. I was immensely frustrated at one point when using magnets to move four blocks around. Blocks would behave differently on different tries, leading to a feeling of imprecision. 

It is a short game, taking me just over three and a half hours to complete, but to be fair this is reflected in the price. There are good and enjoyable puzzles, but I felt like I was just breezing through most of it. As of writing, the game is available for £10.99 and I am not honestly sure that it is good value for money. 

My "Room of frustration"

Personally
I mildly enjoyed my time with this game, but it is definitely a simple and basic experience. As I said above, the game has no soul. If you like first person puzzle games, then give this a shot - but expect it for what it is : a competent puzzle game similar in layout to Portal, with none of its personality and charm. It is definitely not a bad game by any means however.

If you are not sure, or are keen on value for money, then wait for the game to be on sale. 

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