December 20th, 2011 | By Chris Priestman
The white and clean walls, the first person view, the puzzle rooms; is this not Portal? Toxic Games’ debut environmental puzzler may bear many resemblances to the Aperture Science Labs, but it has its own ideas and atmosphere. That does not shake away the comparison though and so Q.U.B.E. has a lot to live up to.
Many entries into modern popular culture have explored the concept of a living machine; one that can think for itself. Shodan and GLaDos are gaming’s most famous maidens used to exploit this fear, but Q.U.B.E. makes a more subtle effort to induce unease into its players upon awakening in the heart of this machine. Walls close in on you and floors lift you to reach doorways, sliding into place at your every step, at times in a manner that plants the idea: is this too perfect? Geometric shapes and rigid lines are adhered to at all times during your incursion into the machine, which seems to feint obedience as you travel precariously through its corridors. It is quite apparent who is in control and even the silent hum of your own computer chassis adds to the “calm before the storm” atmosphere. A curiosity is sparked at times when a corridor is suddenly switched to a different direction, leaving you to ponder what was hiding in that sealed off room. Deja vu settles in quickly within this minimalist setting, but is interrupted almost as suddenly via the introduction of colored blocks.
Your gloves react to these blocks and allow for the manipulation of them to advance through the rooms. Each color affects the blocks in a different manner. Some quite simply extrude and retract, others rotate whole walls. Later in the game, the gloves allow the player to swap the colors of the blocks, essentially painting the white walls in a manner that the ‘De Stijl’ movement would be proud of. As you learn and begin to understand how to use these blocks to your advantage, your flow introduces the game’s soundtrack. It’s as if your progress is inducing an excitement within the machine which culminates in the transmission of electronic blips and beats. This musical cue soon lifts the blanket of hostility and reveals the game’s mainstay feature; sets of challenging puzzles.
Initially appearing as simple as the toddler’s task of matching the shapes to the correct holes, the puzzles in Q.U.B.E. are exciting to start with but may prove divisive in the latter stages. Those looking for the mind-bending peculiarity of Portal are not going to find it here, but that is not to say the thought gone into creating this more traditional puzzle gameplay is any less genius. The defining difference between Portal and Q.U.B.E. is what acts as the subject of their puzzles. In Portal, it is the player’s virtual body that must traverse the environments, whereas Q.U.B.E. has the player manipulating foreign objects to open up passageways. One of the most common puzzles is using blocks and magnets to push and pull a ball around that acts as a key upon reaching the color matched area. Marble Maze is an apt comparison, as well as many other traditional puzzles that cater to child development. You will barely move from one spot during the process of working out the dastardly solutions to the puzzles. Instead you will stand to the side interacting from afar, quite often through a glass barrier.
Some may not be particularly enthralled by the prospect of traditional puzzles in a computer game, but Q.U.B.E. does have a few tricks up its sleeve to hold your interest. Plain white walls may act as your only scenery in the game’s youth, but as this experience ages it slips into what could be described as a mid-life crisis. Something so perfect cannot last forever. The game comes into its own at this point, as it combines head scratching puzzles with a delightfully playful visual cacophony. Life and death seem to inhabit the walls as collapsing structures serve to prelude kaleidoscopic corridors. Rounding some corners even widens the eyes as the once claustrophobic spaces expand into impressive architecture to crane the neck. The puzzles become suitably adult as well; colouring inside the lines is easy, but drawing your own shapes proves to be quite the challenge. New mechanics are introduced to hold your attention and older ones are given a fresh spin. It is clear that Toxic Games knows how to evolve an experience in a way that will keep you on your toes.
One thought does permeate throughout Q.U.B.E. though, and it chimes with the problems of familiarity. Of course, the comparison to Portal immediately draws upon this, but standing back from the game it seems that Q.U.B.E. revisits the same puzzles from time to time with just a change in aesthetics for variation. This is not too much of a problem as the developers have ensured that each puzzle requires a new solution and have constructed a learning curve that is as rewarding as it is challenging. Still, this underlying thought prevents the game from ever truly surprising you as much you want it to. It’s clear that a lot of love has gone into Q.U.B.E., making for a gratifyingly mature experience. It’s definitely a game worth checking out, especially if you enjoy challenging puzzles and intelligent, stylish design.