Shift Quantum is an example of what can happen to a relatively simple game if you take a theme and run with it. In the case of Shift Quantum, developers Fishing Cactus have enhanced a spatial awareness game with a future noir skin, turning it from a fairly standard head scratcher into a surrealist, cyberpunk, wish-fulfilment fantasy.
Your vibrantly animated protagonist, a nameless participant in a virtual reality experiment, wears a swish black trench coat which flies behind him as he runs and jumps across the black and white platforms. His one touch of colour is a yellow scarf dropped by a mysterious, prepubescent girl; reminiscent of the girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List. The backdrop is a vista of endless skyscrapers reaching towards the heavens like the hands of a Baptist congregation, while anti-grav cars zoom past Japanese language neon signs that bring to mind private detectives eating ramen on street market stalls. Finally, and of course, the sheen across the screen is the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.
However, the touch that really delivers the cyberpunk power fantasy is the almighty, Neo-like punch our hero delivers whenever he slams his fist into the ground upon engaging in the game’s main mechanic. That mechanic being the shift between the game’s two main planes of existence represented by black and white. As the main character walks along the floor you will notice that the solid black space upon which he walks is actually another part of the level. You press the circle button and suddenly what was once the ground beneath your feet is now the plane in which you travel.
Every level is a box floating in the sky of this black-and-white, neon wonderland and each has two basic objects; an entrance and an exit. You can only reach the exit by traversing both planes of positive and negative space, both above the surface and below. There are other elements added throughout the game making the puzzles slowly more complex and challenging. A button, once pressed, can change the complexion of the game board, making inaccessible areas reachable; moveable blocks give you extra spaces to manoeuvre and spikes add an element of danger forcing you to start again if you make a wrong move.
At its best, Shift Quantum gives you levels that are intricate puzzle boxes, forcing you to further your understanding of the game’s mechanics and environmental structure in order to see the puzzle from the angle that will finally reveal the path to the exit. Unfortunately, Shift doesn’t hit that height as often as it should. Boasting dozens of levels, Shift Quantum only uses many of the early ones to instruct rather than to challenge. The best puzzle games, such as Portal or The Swapper, manage to strike a balance between both. Shift Quantum’s early levels don’t even show a hint of trying to meet that ambition. Even the addition of collectables in each level can at times fail to add any challenge. Throughout the game, a level can feel as though there is either is no challenge to completing it, or no challenge to finding the hidden token. Only much later in the game does it manage to make a real test out of finding both with consistency.
The other main mode is the option to explore the community made levels. Shift Quantum’s community has created some incredibly intricate and Rube-Goldberg-esque contraptions and conundrums. There is some real imagination on display here, allowed to come alive thanks to the simplicity and intuitiveness of the custom creator. Still though, while the main campaign of Shift Quantum has the makings of a fine puzzle platformer, it has too much filler to claim a high concentration of quality mazes. With the game’s philosophy on story, graphics and world building being such a masterclass in ‘less is more’ you’d think they’d take that philosophy and apply it to the game itself.