I love puzzle games, but that hasn’t always been the case. When I was much younger, the term “puzzle game” was more synonymous with falling block games, that is to say games that relied on the old Tetris formula in which the player’s goal is to arrange pieces of junk falling from the sky according to some idiosyncratic rule that causes the mess to disappear. I really liked Tetris, but I also got it for free with my Game Boy. It simply never crossed my mind to use the limited opportunities that a youngster has to get new video games on the numerous clones of Tetris that proliferated after its breakout success. Those types of games simply didn’t offer enough content in comparison to the action-adventure games that I usually picked up.
Somewhere along the line all that changed. The “puzzle game” term was commandeered by a different game and its numerous clones. That game, of course, was Portal, and it completely reinvigorated what had become an utterly sleepy genre. The term suddenly was used less to describe games about the strategy and reflexes of arranging falling blocks, and more to describe games in which the player sets about solving puzzles built into the environment of the levels they are meant to explore. And after Portal, there was a boom in indie groups taking advantage of new digital storefronts to release new games in the genre. One game that often stands out in my mind as emblematic of this boom time was QUBE, a game that could easily be described as a Portal clone, although a good game nonetheless, worth the time of anyone interested in such games. QUBE sort of came and went, and it seemed like it didn’t quite make the same lasting impression as some of the other big name puzzle games of the time, which is why I was happy when a sequel, QUBE 2, was released earlier this year.
QUBE 2, like the game before it, is set inside a massive structure made of white cubes, ominously implied to be of alien origin. During the beginnings steps of the story, the player discovers and equips a strange, technologically-advanced glove that allows them to manipulate the properties of the cubic building blocks of the surroundings. This is the primary means through which the player interacts with the environment. The glove can confer functionality to specific cubes with each functionality having a specific color coding. Red cubes expand outward, laterally from the surface in which they are embedded, to create steps or possibly obstructions. Blue cubes act like “ejectors”, forcefully expelling the player or any other objects that touch their surfaces in the opposite direction. Finally, green cubes become detached from the structure, creating a moveable object that can be used, for instance, to weigh down switches or act as stepping stones.
These are the only glove functions that are introduced to the player. With such a limited number of ways to manipulate individual blocks, I was initially worried that QUBE 2 might be too simplistic mechanically for a large variety of complex puzzles. Ultimately, however, I found that the game had a good ramp in terms of difficulty and complexity. While the player may only have three “powers”, the game continually introduces new elements and features to the environment that keep the basic formula of the puzzles from stagnating. And while I felt the game started off maybe too easy, the puzzles progress through a fair difficulty curve, and I think the puzzle design offered a very satisfying challenge without ever becoming unreasonably obtuse.
The first QUBE was completely devoid of story, and that’s not an exaggeration. As far as I can recall, the main character never spoke, was spoken too, or encountered other characters. He/she/it simply moved through the cube structures solving puzzles to progress. I think the game may have been criticized a bit unfairly for this, as the closest point of comparison most people have for this game is Portal, and many people play Portal for the story first, puzzles second. Eventually, a “director’s cut” version of the game was released that included new story elements, but I’ve never gone back to play this version, so I can provide no comment on it.
I can say, however, that QUBE 2 puts a fair bit of effort into its story from the get go. The player takes control of Amelia Cross, a woman who awakens on a desolated planet that has been overtaken by the eponymous alien cubes which have self-assembled into enormous structures that dot the world’s surface. Taking refuge in one of these structures, Amelia begins to explore its inner workings and sets about uncovering the true nature of the cubes and their potential as friend or foe to humankind. The story is metered out in the “radio play” style with all interactions between Amelia and the other characters being carried out over radio transmissions as the player goes about their business. I thought the actual plot that unfolds was merely decent. It’s not bad by any means, but for people who have read or watched a lot of science fiction, it will probably be easy to figure out where the story is heading. But as predictable as it may be, the story doesn’t really get in the way of the overall adventure, and I felt it gave some coloring to the experience that increased immersion, meaning I don’t feel that it was a purely perfunctory element of the game. But it’s important to understand that for the kind of person who plays Portal for the story and jokes and doesn’t really care about the challenge of puzzle solving, this game probably won’t be particularly engaging.
Speaking of immersion, I thought QUBE 2 was visually stunning in its own humble way. I feel like that’s kind of a weird thing to say about a game where the player spends their time exploring environments entirely made out of white cubes. But the image quality is really sharp, and lighting is used well to create texture and dynamism in the world. Later on in the game, bits of nature and greenery begin to encroach on the otherwise sterile environments, adding a small bit of satisfying diversity. There’s not a huge amount of variety to the setting, but I never felt bored or tired of the aesthetic, which is not something I can say of the first QUBE.
QUBE 2 is interesting because its predecessor is so quaint in comparison. QUBE was a simple $15 puzzle game released in the wake of Portal’s popularity. It was a cool game, but I never really thought the core concept could carry more than one title in a series. The team behind this game apparently had a completely different idea, however, and really doubled down on what they had. With QUBE 2, they took their humble indie game and blew it up into a significantly more expansive and polished product. QUBE 2 has more extensive content, slicker visuals, and a significantly more substantial story. I find it to be the often too rare kind of sequel that stands completely on its own, and in no way requires experience with the prior game in the series to fully enjoy. Personally, I often tend to be compulsively driven to play games sequentially in a series (i.e., I can’t play sequels until I play their predecessors). But with QUBE 2, I have no hesitance about recommending newcomers start here, and only tackle the original game if they are left wanting more.