On the surface, Q.U.B.E - or Quick Understanding of Block Extrusion, if you want to get technical - is a physics-based 3D puzzler. The player, with the aid of a rather nifty pair of high-tech gloves, manipulates a variety of coloured blocks in order to solve puzzles and escape from the mysterious, sterile white room inside which they are trapped.
That premise alone would be enough to keep any avid puzzle fan entertained but, with Q.U.B.E: Director's Cut, the team at Toxic Games decided to go one step further - giving the player a compelling reason to tackle the puzzle-laden environment that they have created.
When the game begins, the protagonist, an unnamed male, awakens at the bottom of what appears to be a long elevator shaft. The walls are sterile white, comprised of square blocks that, in the beginning, look like pristine tiles. It's disorientating but it is meant to be and this is no bad thing. The sense of intrigue is immediate and only increases when you are immediately contacted via the radio by Commander Novak, a woman who claims to be aboard the International Space Station. She informs you that you are trapped inside of a what appears to be a mysterious giant cube that is hurtling towards Earth and your only way of escaping and saving humanity is to dismantle it from within.
And thus begins the journey. As you proceed towards the first puzzle sector, the white walls shift and retract, leading you forwards. Confidence builds as the path is revealed and there is - surprisingly - more excitement than fear when Novak tells you that her signal is fading and you'll be on your own for a while. That's not to say that as a guide she is superfluous to requirements, however. The initial one-way conversation sets the scene and lets you know what you are narratively required to do in order to proceed in your mission.
The first splashes of bright colour come in the form of the blocks that you will need to manipulate, using the gloves of your high-tech life suit. The running and jumping is solid throughout and the controls are simple - LT/RT triggers control each individual hand and the blocks are colour-coded based on their properties. For example, red blocks can be extended or retracted and blue blocks launch you into the air if they are stood upon. A larger variety of coloured blocks emerge throughout the game, but we'll not spoil the surprises.
Starting off, the puzzles are very simple. There are no prompts or hints on screen to immediately tell you what you're required to do, which makes a refreshing change from most opening segments of modern day video games. As you progress through each puzzle sector - of which there are seven in total - the difficulty level increases but the learning curve is generous enough that by the time you make it to the harder puzzles within a sector, you should have a good grasp of what you are expected to do, if not how to actually do it.
As you progress through the sectors, the puzzles not only become more challenging but have new elements to them, such as a ball that you have to navigate from one end of a room to the other, magnet panels that pull blocks in a certain direction, or different coloured lasers. When the inevitable brain-stumper comes along, a fresh set of eyes is usually key to solving the conundrum and there are only a few that might be definitively frustrating. Of course, this is all dependent upon skill and there will be players who can sail through each sector with relative ease but the sheer variety of puzzles should throw a few curveballs at even the most experienced puzzler from time to time.
All of the above already makes for one heck of an experience but we would be remiss to not come back to the story for a moment. As the player progresses through the areas between each puzzle sector, it becomes apparent that there is much more to this game than simple puzzling. Novak returns to encourage the protagonist and give him reminders about his life in case the solitude of space is getting to him while another, more distorted male voice frantically hints that all may not be what it seems. In addition to this, the pristine white blocks that we admired earlier on begin to darken to a point where they more closely resemble the dingy walls of a padded cell and the pathways begin to distort in ways that become claustrophobic and imposing. It literally feels like the protagonist is being twisted in directions that he is not ready to travel but knows are essential to completing the mission.
The voice acting is remarkably well done and makes the story segments compelling enough to keep you battling your way through the puzzle sectors to find out more. Players may, at times, find themselves leaning towards one potential ally, but it's hard to know who to trust and as the levels progress, you find yourself desperate to uncover the truth. While the story itself has very little effect on the actual puzzling, it will quickly become a reason to stay "just that little bit longer" to get to the end of the game.
A brief and final word has to go to the game's soundtrack. The music is sparse, ominous in the opening sector with stark beats and a little ambiance for tension. As the game progresses, some melodic tunes filter through but they do not seem to last throughout the entirety of a puzzle sector, sometimes even cutting off entirely if the game has been paused for a while. The silence, when it happens, is deafening and if you are prone to becoming frustrated easily when faced with a tough puzzle, some of the background noise can be grating. All in all though, it doesn't detract from the experience as a whole and provides a satisfactory accompaniment to the atmosphere of the game.
The main campaign is not particularly long - experienced puzzlers will likely be able to complete the game within a few hours - but the addition of a challenging "Against the Qlock" mode and the ability to replay sectors will keep players coming back to it's simple yet varied puzzles. What makes Q.U.B.E stand out amongst its peers is its ability to tell a compelling story that will stay with you after the credits roll.
Q.U.B.E: Director's Cut is an excellent physics based puzzler that offers enough variety and challenge to its puzzles to satisfy even the most lateral of thinkers. Obvious comparisons will be made to the Portal franchise but for players who never played those games it offers a fresh, new dimension to physics based puzzling and in terms of the story, it offers an altogether more mature and serious narrative throughout. At the price, it's a must-have for any puzzle fan.