When a first-person shooter comes out which superimposes neat new mechanics on the tried and true formula of the genre, nobody screams about how it's some Call of Duty knock-off. Or perhaps some do - idiots, to a one - but assuredly they shouldn't, because however much Infinity Ward's take has come to dominate the space, there were excellent first-person shooters before Call of Duty, and in time, there'll be FPS-based games which put Call of Duty to shame. Bioshock Infinite, for instance. Give it to me!
But there have been far fewer first-person puzzle games than shooters from said perspective. In fact - and please do correct me if I'm wrong here - the only one I can recall is Portal, so it's hardly surprising that every review I've read of Q.U.B.E. has made reference to Valve's masterpiece of spatial awareness. It's hardly surprising, particularly given that the pair share an identical clinical aesthetic, and take similar turns around the halfway mark... but that isn't to say it's fair. Indeed, I'd describe the tepid reception Q.U.B.E. has received as indecent.
Q.U.B.E.'s name is a reference to the gameplay principle it revolves around, which is to say the Quick Understanding of Block Extrusion. At the outset the player wakes in a simple white-tiled test chamber without a word of explanation as to how you got there, or when or why, or even where there is. The only thing you can do is move forward, into another room, where there's a ledge you can't quite reach, and a single coloured block set into the floor, blood-red against the pure, bright white. You click it... and it rises. You click it again and it lowers back into the floor. Understanding dawns when you surmount the platform and raise it up to gain access to the ledge you couldn't get to before.
In the next chamber there's a red block and a blue block. In the chamber after that there's a set of yellow blocks as well. You discern that each colour does a distinct thing, and the first few of Q.U.B.E.'s seven sectors are devoted to exploring the many and various ways you can interact with these coloured blocks, and they with one another.
Concepts fall into place quickly and moreover naturally in the first half of Toxic Games' debut. The Welsh startup studio may well have borrowed an idea here and adapted an art asset there, but they put all of Q.U.B.E.'s component parts together in an inspired order that is entirely their own. The thrill of discovering the riddle of each subsequent room is second to none. Well... it's second to one, but if there's a more soaring series to play second fiddle to than Portal, I don't know its name.
Sadly Q.U.B.E. seems to run out of ideas well before the game is over. There's been no narrative to speak of thus far, and certainly no character, but suddenly the luridly lit rooms are plunged into darkness, and then the walls begin to crumble around you; sparking wires hang loose, the mechanics of platforms are rudely exposed, and spherical security drones start factoring into puzzles that seem at best abstract. Q.U.B.E. becomes an uncomfortably familiar experience, and by the time it finds itself again, shortly before the credits roll, hours have passed, and the game has changed, for poorer rather than richer: the difficulty curve has risen sharply, only to drop arbitrarily away into jagged cracks and chasms of its own creation. In short, Q.U.B.E. has become something of a slog.
But wait, there's more! I wouldn't usually comment on bugs in a video game review, no more than I would allude to typos or formatting problems in a review of a book, alas... there's no getting away from the fact that Q.U.B.E. is a bit broken. I lost count of the number of times I had to restart a room because I'd gotten stuck on some unexpected geometry, but these clipping issues were hardly an issue amongst all the blue screens I encountered -- and this on a computer that hasn't crashed since I fed it Windows 7.
Presumably there'll be patches - if there aren't already - to address these issues, and DLC tailored to expand upon the best moments of Toxic Games' flawed but nonetheless impressive debut. I'll look forward to both of those things, but with several reservations.
Ultimately, it's fine to find fault with Q.U.B.E. - after all it is far from a perfect game, nor by any means a stable one at the time of this writing - but to dismiss it because it bears a momentary aesthetic resemblance to Portal is wrong-headed. And despite all its issues, I'd still urge you to give Q.U.B.E. a go, the better to see what else it has to offer for yourself.