Portal was a phenomenon. It’s rare that a game establishes a new genre with such dominance, and Valve was quick to follow up the short experiment with a fully fledged masterpiece in 2011. Later that year, Toxic Games would release their own experiment in the same space with the original Q.U.B.E. This game had you manipulating your environment one cube at a time, and the developers continued to iterate with new updates and an eventual Director’s Cut release.
In 2018, Q.U.B.E. 2 looks to make a similar jump in quality between sequels. It’s not a masterpiece, but this first-person puzzler is certainly an accomplishment to be proud of.
Taking place in tandem with the story established in the Director’s Cut, Q.U.B.E. 2 initially looks to be a retread. Amelia Cross has crash landed into an alien complex and doesn’t remember why. This is all pretty much what happened in the original, and the game knows that. After a few levels, the curtain peels back, revealing a much deeper tale that does a decent job of pushing you forward.
There are only a handful of characters you meet along the way, all via voices in your ear. Thankfully, voice acting is one of Q.U.B.E. 2’s highlights. The game strings you along with distinct characters that are believably distressed at being trapped against their will in a world of puzzles. Some of the grasps towards emotional resonance didn’t hit with me, but I felt engaged as long as the characters were focused on their task.
Much more enjoyable were the little hints at what’s really going on. Statues serve as cryptic audio logs that don’t really make sense until the climax. By the end, you’ll be rolling with the punches in more ways than one.
For those who are new to the world of test chambers and ominous voice-overs, Q.U.B.E. 2 takes after its predecessor here as well. This is a physics-heavy puzzle game played from the first person perspective and built around trial and error. A typical room will give you a handful of elements and let you go nuts, mashing them together until it all makes sense. The rules in place are strict enough that the puzzles feel immensely intuitive.
Amelia sports a pair of gloves that can manipulate the cubes dotting the walls, which lets her navigate through various puzzle chambers. She can pull blocks out to form staircases or give them the properties of a small trampoline and bounce around. The controls are simple and instinctive, especially on a gamepad.
Eventually, elements like giant pinballs, fire spouts, and rotating pillars complicate matters, and the last few levels consist of Rube Goldberg contraptions that are a joy to set up. Some elements, like the gusts of wind that can let you float across gaps, feel less than precise at times. The entire game can fall to physics wonkiness, which can be frustrating in a game all about mastering the rules of the world.
It will take you a bit before you notice any of this. Q.U.B.E. 2 takes its sweet time ramping up to those moments, and much of the early game feels incredibly easy. Anyone who has sampled a few games in this genre will be sleepwalking through these setups and looking for more complicated puzzles. It took until Chapter 7 (of 11) for any real challenge to occur.
These concessions exist to ensure that players new to first-person puzzlers can get their footing. That’s all well and good, but this approach robs the game of its memorability. By their very nature, these games can’t really have a variable difficulty. The linear story and intricately designed puzzles mean that every player takes the same path to victory.
This one track fits all, hurts everyone. Newer players will enjoy gaining these skills over time only to feel cheated as their mastery isn’t truly tested. Veterans who love the genre only get half of an engaging experience with the same disappointing ending. The puzzles towards the end are great fun, and one hopes that the developers have a few more advanced chambers up their sleeves for a follow-up.
This lackadaisical pace does at least give advanced players a nice opportunity to scope out the impressive environments you’ll be bouncing through. As opposed to the original game’s static white backdrops, Q.U.B.E. 2’s chambers are full of decay and colorful variety. It’s still a stark alien world, but you can feel a progression as you get through the initial zones. You can feel the character’s hope as you sneak a peek at the sun outside the oppressive walls.
It’s fascinating to see how much work goes into creating a world that makes sense mechanically. There aren’t any floating platforms here, and you can follow one of the many wires from a power station to a device at your leisure. The game has a respectable five-six hour runtime which should please more players. As for me, I almost wanted to see more chambers based purely on the environmental variety.
Should you buy it?
As it is, Q.U.B.E. 2 achieves what it sets out to do as a sequel. There’s fine storytelling here, and the puzzles are fun to complete even if they never really get too challenging. For someone who finds this genre confounding, this might be a great place to start. The game rolls out tropes that are directly applicable to more complicated affairs like The Turing Test. Puzzle veterans will probably want to see this one through as well, if only for the breezy attitude and beautiful environments.
Q.U.B.E. 2 was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the publisher.