It can’t be an easy feat to craft a first person puzzler these days. With the superlative Portal games holding the throne with an iron portal gun, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Valve’s critically acclaimed series casts a long and foreboding shadow across many of its would-be peers. That however, hasn’t stopped Toxic Games from forging ahead and creating Q.U.B.E Directors Cut, an all-too short if mechanically brilliant take on the genre that entertains for as long as its desperately finite duration permits.
Originally released on other platforms back in 2011, Q.U.B.E has quietly toiled in the background and largely avoided the ravenous fandom that has long since been synonymous with Valve’s puzzler series. In spite of this however, the conundrums which are to be found contained within Q.U.B.E’s boundaries remain brain-ticklingly entertaining all the same.
Set in impersonal, monochromatic environments, Q.U.B.E has players proceeding from room to room solving puzzles based upon, you guessed it, cubes, with each of the six-shaded shapes possessing different characteristics depending on their colour. Equipped with a funky power glove that changes hue depending on the colour of cube that it has targeted, players can manipulate these shapes, causing them to expand or retract depending on the button pressed.
Red cubes may be extended or retracted, blue cubes can create springboards when depressed, yellow cubes usually come in a trio and can create a makeshift staircase, while green cubes remain stationary and can’t really be directly interacted with. It is then, that the conundrums in Q.U.B.E make use of all these different cube types while spicing up proceedings with Rubiks Cube style switches that can rotate portions of a room and dispense balls that must be deposited down the correctly colour-coordinated pit. Regardless of the machinations of each brain teaser though, the objective remains the same; escape the room and then proceed onto the next.
In all fairness, it would be difficult to blame you for thinking that this doesn’t sound so tremendously exciting but actually solving these puzzles proves to be both enjoyable and satisfying to do. A big part of how Toxic Games have achieved this is through the expertly judged difficulty curve that forms the backbone of Q.U.B.E’s puzzle-solving exploits.
Straightforward and simple in the beginning, the developer does a grand job of slowly and deliberately introducing the various elements that comprise the myriad conundrums within the game. Deftly, Toxic Games manages to achieve that great balance where you never feel overwhelmed by what the game is trying to teach you and yet, the difficulty curve is so well judged that more advanced concepts and difficult puzzles are segued into the gameplay organically and never feel poorly implemented.
Another well-thought out aspect of these puzzles is that because your character cannot actually die and the puzzles themselves can be instantly reset, there is absolutely no barrier whatsoever to failing them and then straightaway taking another crack at it. Honestly, it’s a great thing to see that the developer comprehends that there has to be as few barriers as possible between the player and the attempts that they make to solve the game’s conundrums, since a lengthy return to each new attempt would surely frustrate.
If there is one sizeable knock to the whole affair, it’s that, well, there just isn’t enough of it. Pointedly, the single-player campaign is set across six different stages that can be burned through in its entirety in roughly three and a half hours. There are however, some ancillary additions to the main experience that can extend that figure somewhat. Hidden around a few of the stages in Q.U.B.E’s single-player campaign are secret puzzle rooms which actually provide some fiendishly cunning problems to solve and in doing so, happily leverage what the player has been taught already rather than forcing them to arrive at a more obscure solution as other games might otherwise demand. Oh, and you get a shiny trophy for nailing each of them too, so there’s always that.
Elsewhere, Q.U.B.E Director’s Cut also packs in the nattily named Against the Qlock DLC which adds timed challenges and online leaderboard tracking so you can institute some speedrunning bragging rights over your fellow PlayStation brethren. The puzzles which are cloistered within this additional mode though, are a little different from the regular, garden variety types that permeate the campaign as they require power-ups to be collected in order for players to shave off precious seconds of completion time. While a novel addition to the base Q.U.B.E experience, these extra levels don’t feel quite as well constructed as those seen in the main game but nonetheless succeed in provide a few extra hours play for the folks that tear through the main campaign.
Speaking of the campaign, threading the whole thing together is a brand new narrative which is exclusive to the director’s cut version of the game. Penned by Rob Yescombe (he of Alien: Isolation and the forthcoming RIME, fame) the plot is a world away from the cheekily irreverent narrative of the Portal games, with Yescombe’s narrative instead eschewing such comedy in favour of dwelling on more weighty existential issues.
Conveyed to the player via audio transmissions (complete with some pretty decent voice acting to boot), Q.U.B.E’s plot meditates on themes such as self-perspective, identity and isolation. In fairness, the actual reason why you’re stuck in a set of cubed rooms in deep space, mucking about with puzzles does feel a little overwrought. That said though, the vibe of psychological trauma that the narrative radiates provides a deft accompaniment to the clinical minimalism of the game’s aesthetic; forcing the player to self-interpret the tenets of such weighty issues and transpose them on the blank-slated world that surrounds them. Ultimately though, while I personally found the new story to be both interesting and thought provoking, some folks will surely balk at the amount of self-interpretation that is required, meaning that your mileage may vary as a result.
If like Portal before it, QUBE continues on its clearly upward qualitative trajectory than QUBE 2 should be something very special indeed. As it is, Toxic Games inaugural entry into the first person puzzler space on PlayStation proves to be a limited, delectable morsel, if not one that constantly entertains during its short duration.