Ah, the cube. It’s forever been a staple of videogames (especially in the guise of the popular Crate character), from moving them around in the classic puzzler Sokoban, to moving them around in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
At a glance, it would be easy to dismiss Q.U.B.E (a rather contrived acronym for Quick Understanding of Block Extrusion) as a Portal clone, what with it being a first-person puzzler and adopting the same sterile aesthetic, but that would be foolish. Why? Well, for one, while we of course encourage innovation, the world could do with more games like Portal. It isn’t exactly a saturated genre (yet).
Secondly, it has a number of key differences that set it apart from Valve’s spatial stumper.
First, unlike Portal, Q.U.B.E isn’t constantly out to kill the player. This creates a much more leisurely, relaxed experience, as one tiny cock-up won’t result in death and the minimum requirement for reflexes is much lower (though they still play a large part in successful puzzle solving). Being able to take the time to think without the constant threat of being set on fire is certainly a nice change of pace.
Some complained that Portal 2’s plot was a nuisance that got in the way of the puzzling, something no one will have to worry about here as there is no story whatsoever. Sure, sometimes things happen, but they appear to be rather random and are never explained. It gives the impression that a story was originally planned, only for it to be ripped out towards the end of development, leaving nothing but scripted sequences and set pieces. So in that respect, it’s a bit like a modern Hollywood movie! Insert rim shot here.
Still, the game could have benefited from at least having some sort of personality or attempt to convey a mood or atmosphere, which the music (while functional) and scripted sequences fail to do, making the game feel just as sterile as the environments it traps the player in.
Then there is the biggest difference. There are no portals. Instead (and this is perhaps obvious), there are cuboids, though I should warn cube enthusiasts (or “blockheads” as they call themselves) that spheres also play pivotal roles in the game.
So this is how the game works. The player hovers their cursor over a coloured block or tile (white blocks cannot be manipulated directly) and press either mouse button to manipulate it in some way. For example, left-clicking a red cube will raise it whereas right-clicking it will lower it. It’s all rather straight forward when it comes to playing, allowing the player to focus on the puzzles.
Among the other type of cuboids and tiles the player will encounter are a set of three yellow ones that can be manipulated into a staircase and a blue one that acts as a spring to launch either the player or objects across the level. My personal favourites are tiles that will shift an entire sector of cubes ninety degrees, making one feel like they’re inside a gigantic Rubik’s Cube.
Later on, players will have the chance to place the different tiles themselves (well, obviously with restrictions) which is where the game really hits its stride. Here, I felt like I was being clever, like I was finding solutions the creators didn’t expect. I’m sure this wasn’t the case at all, and I was solving problems exactly as they planned, but it’s how the game makes you feel that’s important, and it was that same feeling the original Portal often provided and that the sequel didn’t quite replicate.
The game is structured so that the player makes their way through nine different nodes, each having their own particular focus (or a mix of them), including directing robots to a goal, playing with magnets, finding the way through darkness and other such things.
Yup, it’s all things we’ve seen in games before, but they haven’t all been done in 3D (at least not often), and they’re all combined together to create very smart, enjoyable puzzles.
Some challenges could have afforded to be a little more taxing though (only a few towards the end really stumped me), or the game could have just featured some more puzzles, which leads to what many may find to be the biggest flaw with the game; it takes about two hours to finish. At US$15, I’m sure many will find that steep for a short game with no replay value, but then again I was dragged to see Jack and Jill in the cinemas recently, one of the most tedious one-and-a-half-hours of my life, and that cost me $20.
So in the end we have a short game with no story, no replay value, a price many would consider steep for what you get, and puzzles that aren’t as original as ones found in other games in the genre. It would make it easy to slam the game, but those two hours are very enjoyable. Q.U.B.E is an incredibly sharply designed game, perfectly building on each introduced mechanic, culminating in an entertaining if tragically short experience.
If only there was more, we could whole-heartedly recommend the game. As it stands, until Q.U.B.E gets a content injection (and add another number to the score if it does), it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon – but you’ll be done before evening and will be unlikely to go back to it later.