The Portal games from Valve are two of the greatest games of the last generation, creating unique first-person puzzle experiences with sophisticated story elements which continues to inspire the industry to this day. The recently released to consoles Q.U.B.E.: Director's Cut acknowledges as much with a shout-out to Valve in its Special Thanks section of its credit. Everything from its visual aesthetic, level-design, atmosphere, and even narration feels clearly influenced by Portal.
Although apart from base genre fundamentals, Q.U.B.E. is every much its own game, specifically with its more mature narrative and clearly defined block manipulation puzzle systems. While Q.U.B.E.: Director's Cut is not quite as polished and expansive as the true titans of the genre like Portal and The Talos Principle, Q.U.B.E. is still a strong title.
Q.U.B.E. has you in the role of a nameless, mute individual who is suffering from amnesia, finding himself alone in a strange alien environment comprised of millions of cubical geometry shapes. Shorter after waking up, the mysterious voice of a women reaches you through the advanced suit you are wearing. She claims to be an astronaut on the International Space Station, who is acting as your handler. Your mission, apparently, is to enter this vast cubical structure that is on a direct collision course with the Earth, and to learn about and potentially even destroy it before it reaches and obliterates the planet.
Simple enough. But things start become more complicated after a mysterious male voice hacks into your radio channel and begins to tell you that everything around you is an illusion. That in actuality this shifting, alien geometric place is actually a human testing facility and that you’re nothing more than a lab rat. He urges you not to trust the women’s voice, and to find an escape from the seemingly never ending strange, yet oddly specific puzzles designed that hinder your progress throughout the environment.
Video games, being an adolescent storytelling medium, often play with dual conflicting narrations or narrators, but fumble this complicated storytelling mechanic with the twist and reality of the situation more often than not being all too clear. Q.U.B.E.: Director’s Cut is the rare exception to this fact with a surprisingly nuanced control over its story and writing, masterfully bouncing between and supporting the conflicting narrators, giving both sides of the story believable human flaws and relatable moments to effectively split my idea on who, if either of them, was actually right.
While the story is in fact fantastically developed, Q.U.B.E. also helps to push you forward thanks to its generally great puzzle design and systems progression. Q.U.B.E. revolves around the ability to manipulate different color blocks, with each different hue possessing different properties to utilize and exploit to solve Q.U.B.E.’s puzzle rooms. It’s a well-defined toolset that Q.U.B.E. hands you without any significant tutoring, which only becomes more sophisticated and entertainingly perplexing as you progress onward.
Q.U.B.E. gets better and better when it builds upon and expands its core block manipulate system. But on the reverse side, Q.U.B.E. becomes worse when it introduces gimmicks or completely new gameplay systems which mostly sidestep its base fundamentals. Some of these include buggy and unsatisfying physics puzzle which you only have indirect control with fiddly and unsatisfying tools like magnetism and so on. Unfortunately, most of these are stacked-up at the end of the game which despite the game’s otherwise fantastic finale, I had a slight bitter taste in my mouth upon completion of Q.U.B.E. as the final gameplay scenarios left me frustrated and cold. But that being said, when Q.U.B.E. sticks with its fundamentals and expand upon those directly, it’s one of the best designed first-person puzzle games out there.
Production-wise Q.U.B.E. will at first look incredibly uninspired thanks to its Portal-esque sterile science facility look which we’re all quite used to by now. But it gets significantly more survivable when Q.U.B.E. starts to play around with the malleability of its world as fashioned by basic geometry shapes, mostly cubes. By the end of things, Q.U.B.E. starts to look more like 2013’s Antichamber then Portal, giving you some truly mind-bending spaces to play in as Q.U.B.E. starts to experiment more with Euclidean space and other more surprisingly twists of the environment.
And I would be remiss not to mention the strong audio work present in Q.U.B.E. The strong, tense ambient soundtrack composed by in-house musicians at developer Toxic Games really help influence and drive the alienating and isolationist atmosphere of Q.U.B.E. which when combined with the story and artstyle produce one of the most foreboding atmospheres of any games this year. Also praise should be given to the voice actors Rachel Robinson and Rupert Evans whose strong performances alongside the strong script really sell the two conflicting narrators of Q.U.B.E. and provide the emotional weight of the story.
Q.U.B.E.: Director’s Cut is one of the strongest first-person puzzle games in the entire genre. Sometimes its overenthusiastic fondness and respect for Valve’s Portal franchise seemingly overwhelms its own unique sense of self in the beginning, but with the greater concern being its flimsy end-game gimmick puzzle scenarios which get away from the great meat-and-potatoes of its block manipulation gameplay. But whenever Q.U.B.E.: Director’s Cut returns to its gameplay fundamentals, supported by a surprisingly powerful story drenched in a strong paranoia-inducing atmosphere, Q.U.B.E: Director’s Cut is one of the most engaging games of the year.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE
(A great game that largely succeeds, but stumbles in some notable ways.)