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Back in 2012, Q.U.B.E. reminded me of Portal. Now, six years later, the sequel Q.U.B.E. 2 reminds me of Portal 2—and that annoys me. It annoys me because I hate reducing a game to the sum of its (very obvious) inspirations, hate trying to separate one from the shadow of the other, hate lumping together apples and oranges merely because they’re fruit.
But Q.U.B.E. 2 and Portal 2 are less apples and oranges, more a mixed crate of Fuji and Honeycrisp apples. There’s a sense of history repeating itself as, like Portal before, the proof-of-concept that was Q.U.B.E. returns with a larger, more complicated sequel—one that sometimes leaves you missing the original’s simplicity.
Forget “reminded me of,” actually. Q.U.B.E., short for “Quick Understanding of Block Extrusion,” was the most Portal of all the post-Portal knockoffs. Six years on from its 2012 release, I think we can comfortably make that claim. White rooms, physics puzzles, fancy gloves that let you manipulate the environment—the inspirations were obvious. Too obvious, maybe.
Of course, Q.U.B.E. (or just QUBE from here on) had a gimmick: Cubes. Duh. The whole world was built from them. Armed with the aforementioned fancy gloves, you could move or interact with certain blocks. Orange cubes, for instance, could be pulled out (extruded) from the wall to form a ledge. Blue cubes launched players and objects around the environment. Green cubes spat out standalone blocks, which could weigh down switches or let you jump to a higher ledge.
So far, so Portal. “With a twist,” sure, and the puzzles were decent enough, but it’s pretty telling that most actions in QUBE had an analog in Portal prior.
And to be honest, I don’t think QUBE intended to break out of Portal’s shadow. Hell, the original version of QUBE barely had a story. It wasn’t until 2014’s QUBE: Director’s Cut, two years after the initial release, that the game got proper voiceover narration and some semblance of coherence. The initial 2012 version was basically “Portal-style puzzles for people who like Portal-style games,” and nothing more.
QUBE 2 is quite a bit larger, at least in scope. All you have to do is look at it. Gone are the blank white walls of its predecessor. The world-made-out-of-cubes look remains, but now in darker tones, rougher, like stone or concrete instead of future-plastic. The closest real-world parallel is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mayan-themed Ennis House, which most famously inspired the interior of Deckard’s apartment in Blade Runner. It’s unique and eye-catching, especially in combination with Unreal 4’s always-stunning lighting effects.
More detailed environments aid in telling a more complicated story, too. The Director’s Cut laid some groundwork, establishing the cube as an enormous spaceship hurtling towards Earth, prompting you to blow it up, and then casting doubt upon whether that was the right move or not. QUBE 2 picks up on those threads. Here, you play as Amelia Cross, an archaeologist who somehow awakens on a strange and dusty red planet and is forced to shelter in another enormous cube structure. Surprise: More puzzles inside—and more morally dubious voices on your radio.
It goes some surreal places. Ones I won’t spoil, since I felt a modicum of investment in the story by the end. If nothing else, I admire the effort that’s gone into turning this bare-bones cube world into a Plausible And Logical Environment, regardless of whether all those efforts land, or even make much sense. I like it when developers are able to surpass the limitations of a genre or source material. (See also: Driver: San Francisco)
The core of QUBE 2 is still puzzles, though, and it’s here that I feel most iffy.
Most of QUBE’s blocks return: the orange, the blue, the green. There were one or two others in the original—purple, I think? But only those three make an appearance this time, allowing you to extrude orange blocks, jump on blue, and create green cubes again.
The biggest advance is you can now place blocks where you want them from the start. You’ll see a blank square, think “oh I need a ledge there,” color it orange, and then jump on. That feature made an appearance toward the end of the original, but only in a limited form. QUBE 2 is way more free-form, and although there’s really only one solution per room, it requires a little more thinking than last time.
A longer story necessitates more puzzle mechanics, though, and so QUBE 2 eventually starts adding new tools in the environment. Oil, for instance, lets you slide green blocks across the floor. There are also doors that open only when a green block is launched into them, like a miniature battering ram. A handful of others I won’t reveal here, simply because discovery is half the fun.
Suffice it to say, they’re…fine. All of the new tools are fine. Some clever puzzles ensue.
None of them are quite as satisfying as the original cube-based mechanics, though. That’s problem number one. Despite all of QUBE’s faults, I genuinely enjoyed interacting with it—pulling orange blocks from the wall, launching off a blue cube to land on top, then using a green block to hop to a nearby ledge, and so on. It feels like all the best ideas were already explored in the first game. Every added variable in QUBE 2 means less of that, more oil puzzles or what have you, and those aren’t nearly as interesting.
And the more complicated the puzzles get, the more annoying your mistakes. Often, messing up step 15 of a 20-step solution means starting over from scratch, which feels especially punishing with some of the slower-paced mechanics.
This problem is compounded by the inherent unreliability of physics simulations. Multiple times I found out I’d actually stumbled upon the correct solution 20 minutes earlier and then dismissed it because the physics hadn’t been timed quite right the first time—a ball took a bad bounce, or a block didn’t have quite as much inertia as it was supposed to. When that happens, there’s no way of knowing whether it’s your fault or the game’s.
Worst of all, though: The novelty’s worn off. I’ve always felt physics puzzlers arose from technological advances. The first physics puzzles I remember were in Half-Life 2, from “Pick up that can, citizen” to the one where you lifted a bridge by making barrels float underneath. In 2004, these types of complex physics simulations were a novelty, and Portal came along a few years later to build an entire game around it.
“Physics” is less a game mechanic in 2018, though, and more an expectation. If there’s an object on a table, chances are you can shoot it off. It’s as banal as “Textured Objects” or “A Jump Button” or any other longstanding feature we take for granted.
Playing QUBE 2 in 2018, I felt nostalgic for a while. Angled platform? Bet I’m going to use it to launch across a gap. Frictionless surface? Something’s going to slide across it. But eventually I started to remember why so many of the Portal spinoffs felt so egregiously like Portal spinoffs—and it’s because “physics” gives you a pretty limited palette to build puzzles from. Inertia, kinetic motion, action and reaction.
Sure, you can spin billions of scenarios out of that, dress it up in different ways. I saw a lot of weird scenarios in my high school physics textbook. But it’s hard to truly “shake up” physics. Doing so would undermine the entire concept.
It’s the life cycle of a gimmick. First it crops up in some game as an afterthought, then it’s so novel someone builds an entire game around it, and then it becomes so ordinary it ends up in other games as an afterthought again. Even Portal 2 felt like it was struggling with this problem in 2011, and seven more years hasn’t done the physics puzzle any favors. It’s habit by now. I finished in four hours, and I’d say QUBE 2 still feels about an hour too long.
That said, I enjoyed it. There really is an element of nostalgia, launching blocks across the level and busting open doors, et cetera. And hey, at least this one has a story to pick up the pace when the puzzles drag. Sometimes literally.