Q.U.B.E: Director's Cut Review
Being a super fan of the Portal games, I dove into the debut effort by Toxic Games with anticipatory relish. Other puzzle adventures, such as Quantum Conundrum, have taken a stab at the unique first-person puzzler, but Q.U.B.E. has its own style and flavor. Now, PlayStation 4 owners get the Director’s Cut, which is an undeniably challenging and intriguing game that taxes your puzzle-solving skills and presents you with the vagueness and uncertainty of a true-blue mystery. However, the narrative isn’t the primary focus, as the visual problems you must conquer take center-stage throughout. And despite a few drawbacks, that’s where this game shines.
I’ve often had a problem with the brightness levels in games during this new generation, as so many seem to adopt this dark and forbidding atmosphere. It’s what’s known as “gritty” in artistic circles and I understand the concept, but it gets a little tiring. Q.U.B.E. is actually quite refreshing because this is the polar opposite of “dark;” in fact, it’s so freakin’ bright, it initially felt like being interrogated. The bright white light that permeates this bizarre blocky world is almost blinding, but at least it’s offset by the bright hues of the blocks. It’s a simple presentation, even austere at times, but those reds, blues and blacks do add that necessary splash of color. The rest has that sterile laboratory-like feel, which is expected given the setting.
As you continue to play, the audio really comes into its own. At first, it just seems a little boring and repetitive; “inspired” isn’t the word I’d choose to describe it. However, there are moments when the score really cements the experience with a surprisingly unique and captivating offering. It also serves to enhance the gameplay because let’s face it, all you’re doing is trying to figure out a puzzle. It helps to have some decent music, provided it’s not intrusive. As for the rest of the sound, we have crisp albeit straightforward effects that play into the aforementioned setting. There are times of tension interspersed among the more predictable sequences, and the music does indeed contribute to the urgency.
Hey, remember Portal? I still recall playing Portal 2 for hours, deeply invested in the challenging puzzles. My former girlfriend and I even played through the co-op section, which was even more impressive because the developers had gone out of their way to create an entirely new experience for two players. Now, while Q.U.B.E. doesn’t reach this level of ingenious puzzle design (and we’re without the humorous input of Wheatley and GLaDOS), Toxic Games has created an original, cerebral game that forces you to think outside the box. Yes, pun intended. They even add an effective back story to keep you coming back for more, a method that will forever appeal to me. It does indeed begin with a mystery, as I said in the intro:
At the start, you’ve got amnesia. You don’t remember anything. You don’t know where you are or who you are; all you know is that you’re in a strange futuristic environment where you must continually move from room to room, conquering tougher and tougher puzzles. “Q.U.B.E.” stands for Quick Understanding of Block Extrusion, which of course relates to the blocks you’ll be manipulating in order to make your escape. The blocks are color-coded; each color dictates their use: You can use yellow blocks to form stairs, blue blocks will launch you into the air, and red blocks can extend and retract a certain distance, thereby forming helpful ramps. When all these blocks are combined (and there are more I’m not referencing here), you’re faced with a startlingly complex situation that encourages experimentation.
The learning curve is just about right, even if frustration begins to mount during the middle part of the game. The puzzles are pretty easy at the beginning but pretty soon, the designers start mixing things up and the challenge becomes substantial. It’s not only about messing around with blocks; sometimes you have to place balls into specific holes and later, you’ll face color mixing, which adds to the overall intricacy and originality of the production. It’s true that certain puzzles feel rather vague and as a result, the game gets a little irritating. But I suppose that’s the hallmark of just about any good puzzle adventure, even though I never thought Portal was “vague.” With each step, a bit more of a puzzle’s solution would come to light and it’s not dissimilar in Q.U.B.E.
If you’re wondering what makes this game a Director’s Cut, we get special hidden puzzles that weren’t previously included, along with a Time Trial Mode. That may not sound like much but the new puzzles are actually a big highlight, as they represent even more ingenuity than the existing puzzles. The Time Trial Mode certainly isn’t my cup of tea – I like to take my time with puzzle games and I despise being rushed – but it can be really fun once you know the solution. You also have to complete the main story mode in order to unlock the Time Trial, so you certainly should remember most solutions; the key will be to execute ASAP. It also makes the experience feel a lot different; when pressed for time with the knowledge you’ve gained, you feel like a confirmed master who must now up his game.
The story is decent because it keeps you interested in progressing. You want to know what’s going on and you really want your memory back. At some point, a voice begins to relate certain difficult truisms, such as the fact that you’re being led away from everything you once knew and loved. This conflicts with another voice that’s beckoning you farther and farther into the uncertain darkness. It works very well even though it’s inevitably interrupted by your puzzle-solving, which will vary in length depending on your skill. The control and mechanics are just fine, so you’ve got a very stable, involving puzzle quest that is never annoying due to technical disturbances. It’s only annoying when the puzzle design isn’t quite perfect and you find yourself at a complete loss.
Now, I should add that the game can be completed in only a couple of hours. This is an automatic downside for many gamers but not for me, so I’m not about to lower the score due to the length. Besides, the Time Trial Mode definitely increases the longevity, as do the hidden puzzles. And given the complexity of some of the puzzles, you might be spending longer than two hours in total to finish the story. For the most part, when it comes to such games, I’m not sure people want to spend ten hours trying to solve puzzles, anyway; I think many would be satisfied with just a few hours. But it’s really a matter of perspective; if you don’t feel you’re getting enough bang for your buck, I probably can’t change your mind.
Q.U.B.E: Director’s Cut is a smooth, polished, original puzzler that’s well-paced and rewarding. Both the story and the puzzles will keep you involved throughout and despite a few puzzles that aren’t as expertly designed as others, the developers should be commended. It’s not easy to present the player with an enjoyable narrative and a unique puzzle concept that keeps expanding and challenging with every step you take. Yes, it’s only two hours and you might see that as a downside but personally, I think the length is just fine. And as we'll probably have to wait until 2038 to see Portal 3, this is a solid option for all you puzzle fanatics who have as special appreciation for the futuristic sci-fi setting.
The Good: Crisp, minimalist visual presentation is bright and clean. Soundtrack has its moments. Original, engaging puzzle concept that is very well structured. Sound control and general mechanics. Evolving challenges encourage fresh thinking. Hidden puzzles and Time Trial Mode enhance longevity. Good story makes us wonder and question.
The Bad: Graphics are almost too bright. Some puzzles are obviously better designed than others. Relatively short length could be a problem for some.
The Ugly: “No ‘ugly’ unless you get stuck on a particularly tough puzzle and you lose your sh**.”
8/3/2015 Ben Dutka