Engaging first-person puzzle games are still a fairly rare breed of game. When they're well made, they teach players how to use a blend of both new and familiar gameplay conceits, often teaching us a new types of puzzle logic. Q.U.B.E., a new title by indie developer Toxic Games, falls right into that wheelhouse, using a combination of crisp, clean visuals and some fun (and at times, dastardly) gameplay mechanics.
Q.U.B.E. (short for "Quick Understanding of Block Extrusion") begins with the player awakening in a strange, sterile environment, with walls, floors, and ceilings composed of white cubes. Equipped with futuristic gloves that bestow the ability to interact with strategically placed blocks of different colors, each with different properties, the player's only (unspoken) directive is to solve and escape each room. Red blocks, for example, can be extruded from surfaces to form platforms, yellow blocks (always in a series of three) can be used to create steps, and blue blocks can be uses as spring-pads to launch the player (or other puzzle components). And those are just a few of the basic tools the player has at his disposal.
As the game progresses, more puzzle components are introduced, like rotatable walls, green cubes and spheres that must be coaxed into glowing goals like keys, and even magnets. Q.U.B.E. is very deliberate in its pacing, introducing new puzzle concepts at a gradual pace until things get into full swing. Some of the later puzzles have a lot of moving parts, and though plowing through puzzle after puzzle can eventually induce so mental fatigue, I was always able to come back and find a solution after taking a short break. Overall, Q.U.B.E. gave my brain a good workout.
Most of the puzzles range from the simple to reasonably challenging, though there were a couple of late-game puzzles that involved using magnets to position cubes that I found a bit frustrating. Many of the puzzles in Q.U.B.E. add a action-based element wherein the player must activate buttons and manipulate cubes while other elements of the puzzle are in motion. Most of the time, these types of timing-based action elements worked very well, but a couple of the aforementioned instances involving cubes and magnets required some frustratingly precise manipulation. The upshot was that even once I'd figured out how to solve these particular puzzles, things like the slight delay that occurs between being able to turn a magnet on or off made them trickier to "solve" than I'd have preferred. I only found a couple of the puzzles to be problematic in this way, but it illustrated the truism that although figuring out a puzzle is fun, things get problematic when affecting that solution is mechanically difficult.
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Comparisons between Q.U.B.E. and the Portal series are unavoidable, and though the game doesn't quite reach the watermark set by Valve, that's not really a fair expectation. In truth, Q.U.B.E. does share quite a bit of the aesthetic and mechanical DNA also found in Chell's adventures with GLaDOS, though there are significant differences.
Visually, Q.U.B.E. eventually eschews its sterile "test chamber"-like environments and shows flaws in the environment like crumbling walls or exposes wires. The locations themselves often feel like they're part of some sort of living machine--such as when traversing between puzzle rooms via corridors that shift and rotate before the player's eyes.
There's no dialog, text, or even any sort of HUD in Q.U.B.E., and the exquisitely simple control scheme makes it easy to hit the ground running. Though the impetus to escape is an appropriate one, the game often leaves it up to the player to provide his own motivation to soldier on. The game does have a very cool cinematic ending sequence, but it's really the only piece of author-driven narrative in the game. I really think Q.U.B.E. would have benefited greatly from a few more of these types of moments, both to reward the player for a puzzle well-solved and to provide more narrative context for the adventure.
Another minor quibble is that a good number of the puzzles are manipulated from afar, sometimes even through a transparent barrier that separates the player from the puzzle's moving parts. Most of these types of puzzles were interesting and well-designed, but I much preferred the puzzles that required me to move around while solving them, such as figuring out how to launch myself up to an out-of-reach exit.
At the end of the day, I had a lot of fun with Q.U.B.E. It's a sharp-looking experience with some new logical conceits and some surprisingly clever gameplay mechanics. The first offering from the three-man development team at Toxic Games is quite intelligent and fun in a number of ways, and I have few reservations recommending it to puzzle game fans.
This Q.U.B.E. review is based on the final PC version of the game furnished by Toxic Games.