Quantum Theory: Tower Toppler

The longer I run this site, the more it becomes clear that immediate, embargoed, day-one reviews of video games haven’t been doing a lot of titles justice for a very long time now — right back to the PlayStation 2 era at the very least, and probably beyond.

The trouble is, thanks to the Metacritic-fuelled world we live in, if a game scores poorly in those initial reviews, in most cases it is doomed to languish in obscurity, even if there are interesting things to say about it. There are occasional outliers — the wonderful Nier is probably the best example — but for every game that manages to claw its way out of the darkness to get some degree of recognition, there are myriad others destined to be forgotten.

Which brings us to Quantum Theory, a third-person shooter developed by the people behind the Project Zero series. Almost universally panned by Western reviewers on its original release in 2010, this is not a game that anyone looks back on particularly fondly — or at all, in most cases. But I thought it sounded interesting. And you know what? It is. Let’s take a closer look.

The early 2010s were a strange time for video games. After several generations of Japanese dominance, the all-American Xbox 360 had captured the public imagination to an unprecedented degree. Two generations of Sony making gaming “cool” in the West (not to mention Sega’s first steps in that regard with the Mega Drive) had finally laid the groundwork for a Western-made gaming console that could succeed — no, dominate.

And, in this particular generation, Microsoft’s console seemingly did everything right: it provided spectacular games aimed at more mature audiences; it provided a robust online gaming platform to coincide with the widespread adoption of broadband Internet among the Western public; and it absolutely nailed marketing. By the time the PlayStation 3 showed up a year after the 360’s launch, it was forced to adapt or perish; for much of the console’s life, Sony was playing catch-up, and while there are a number of areas where the PS3 is unique — most notably in the number of anime-style games it plays host to — in order to survive, it needed to pay attention to the new Western dominance of video gaming.

There was one area where the Xbox 360 struggled, though: Japan. While the system plays host to some of the greatest shoot ’em ups of all time, it remained a niche interest at best. But its success overseas caused a number of Japanese developers to think hard about exactly how they were going to handle this particular generation of console hardware: that Western audience couldn’t be ignored, and it was clear what types of games were proving particularly popular. And in the meantime, there was the PS3 to consider, too. How best to handle this seemingly sharp East-West divide while being able to maintain a worldwide audience?

The approach that many Japanese developers and publishers took was to make a distinct effort to create games for both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 that they felt would appeal to a Western audience. This often meant eschewing stylised anime graphics in favour of the fashionable desaturated “next-gen” look of the period and adopting gameplay styles that weren’t historically associated with Japanese franchises. It’s clear that Quantum Theory was very much designed with this in mind, at least initially — though as you progress through the game, Makoto Shibata’s distinctive sense of creative vision clearly starts to shine through more and more, and we end up with something much more interesting than you might expect after your first impressions.

In Quantum Theory, you take on the role of Syd, a muscular, scarred dude with skull-themed armour, a cool gun called the Revenant, and a voice that will rock your subwoofer. We join the game during a visually spectacular sequence as he is escaping a collapsing tower accompanied by a woman named Nyx; it seems the destruction is their handiwork, that Nyx is unlikely to survive the perilous situation that they are both in, and that this is far from the first time Syd has found himself in these unfortunate circumstances.

Sure enough, Syd escapes but Nyx perishes, and we discover that Syd has made it his life’s work to destroy all of the towers that have seemingly sprung up around the post-apocalyptic, ruined world — and played a significant role in making said world ruined and post-apocalyptic. As the story proper gets underway, Syd joins up with a group of human survivors as they attempt to penetrate the defences of another tower, and things escalate from there.

Quantum Theory was lambasted in Western reviews for being a Gears of War clone, and it’s perhaps easy to see why in this opening segment. The over-the-shoulder perspective of a big, burly man shooting at things is very similar; Quantum Theory even includes almost identical mechanics for using and moving between cover, along with the “roadie run” to quickly dash from one place to another.

The game almost immediately starts to show its distinctive features, however, probably the most notable of which is the environments’ tendency to shift around in the middle of combat, changing what cover is available and where. The fact that these environmental shifts appear to be the result of something strange and organic immediately presents an otherworldly, fantastic twist on the otherwise realistic environments at this point in the game, making it clear that Quantum Theory is going for something much more creative than just gritty realism with its aesthetic. And mechanically, it means that as you fight, you not only need to keep an eye on the enemy positions, but you also need to pay attention to what the landscape is doing, too. That pillar you’re hiding behind might not always be there; that wall you’re crouched behind might end up twisting around to present your back to your foes.

Once you clear the initial stage and actually make it into the tower, Quantum Theory really starts to set itself apart in a number of ways. The design of the tower’s interior is frequently breathtaking, combining ornate Gothic influences with deeply disturbing quasi-organic components with more than a touch of Giger about them in a few places. It’s not the sort of environment you typically expect a game like this to unfold in — and indeed, the mechanics start to set themselves apart here, too.

In many ways, Quantum Theory is structured somewhat like a classic arcade-style arena shooter. To progress through the game, you make your way through a series of distinct “encounters” in the various rooms of the tower, and are unable to move on until you clear said encounters. These encounters often consist of several waves of enemies, and in many cases — particularly later in the game — involve dealing with the environment shifting between (or sometimes during) waves.

There’s a good variety of weapons on offer for Syd to use. The aforementioned Revenant is a permanent part of his arsenal, and is essentially a high-powered, slow-firing, long-range pistol that fires explosive bolts. It’s extremely accurate and very powerful, making it ideal for picking foes off with pinpoint shots to weak points. In fact, it’s specifically designed for that; not only does it have a damage bonus when hitting weak points compared to the other weapons on offer, but finishing off an enemy with the Revenant often results in a satisfying slow-motion “kill cam” where you can admire your handiwork without risk.

Beyond the Revenant, there are a couple of types of machine guns and shotguns throughout the game, along with a sniper rifle, several types of launchers, a gun that fires spinning blades and a “particle accelerator” I couldn’t figure out how to use for the life of me. Syd can hold up to three weapons including the Revenant at any one time, and choosing a suitable loadout for the encounters ahead of you is of particular importance; if the game happens to drop a specific type of weapon in front of you before you pass through the next door, it’s generally a good idea to pick it up!

An additional tactical consideration is provided by the character Filena, who Syd joins up with partway through the narrative. Filena isn’t a constant presence, but she is critical to the game’s narrative, and while she fights alongside Syd you can enlist her assistance in a few ways. Firstly, she can support Syd’s melee attacks with a devastating combo; secondly, she will wander around and attack things using both melee and ranged weapons if you leave her to it; and thirdly — probably most importantly — Syd can pick her up and fling her around.

Throwing Filena has a couple of uses. Chucking her at an enemy causes her to deliver a devastating attack that is enough to down many smaller enemies in a single blow, as well as dealing major damage to bosses. Like the Revenant weak point shots, this is always accompanied with a slow-motion cutscene so you can admire her work. Beyond that, you can throw her up above a group of enemies to distract and stun them, or throw her behind a troublesome enemy (one operating a turret, for example) to put pressure on them from another angle and perhaps take some of the heat off Syd.

One area in which Quantum Theory really shines is in providing helpful feedback to the player. Killing an enemy always results in them noisily exploding into goo, which is not only enormously satisfying, it’s also a clear audio-visual signal that you have indeed defeated an enemy rather than just damaging them. On tougher enemies, hitting the correct weak spots is accompanied by the sort of splattering pus you’d expect from a horror-sci-fi mashup, and even both Syd and Filena’s one-liners during combat provide useful information about whether your shots are finding their mark or not — handy when dealing with far-off foes.

You’re also never left in any doubt as to whether or not an encounter is complete; Syd or Filena will comment when you’re down to the last enemy of a wave, and dispatching the last enemy of the last wave will result in an invitation to click the right stick to focus the camera on the door you’ve just opened. To further make this abundantly clear, said notification is accompanied by a satisfying “ping” noise; think of it as the third-person shooter equivalent of a beat ’em up’s “Go!” signal. Only with the chaotic, dynamic environments in this game, you might find yourself having to move on not by simply walking forwards, but by, say, climbing up a vertical wall, catching hold of some sort of horrifying worm thing’s dangling appendage and then leaping dramatically through a stained-glass window.

As for the narrative, it’s one of those games where there’s a lot to discover if you’re willing to go exploring. You can draw some of your own conclusions from just the things that unfold on screen, but scattered throughout the game are 50 “Eyes of the Tower” that unlock various log entries when shot, allowing you to develop a full picture of what the tower actually is, who Syd and Filena really are, and the reasons for some of the strange happenings later in the game.

With the entire world being ruined as we join the story, Syd and Filena successfully completing their mission to bring down the tower doesn’t suddenly make everything all sunshine and rainbows at the conclusion of the narrative. But as things wrap up, you feel like you have a better understanding of what has transpired — and what will doubtless continue to unfold off-camera after the credits have rolled. If you’re familiar with Makoto Shibata’s work on the Project Zero series, you’ll absolutely recognise what is going on here — it’s through this aspect in particular that the game feels at its most distinctively Japanese.

In summary, then, Quantum Theory is a lot more interesting than the reviews from around its launch might lead you to believe. Sure, the surface-level, most basic mechanics are lifted almost wholesale from Gears of War — if they’re proven to work, why change things, after all? — but the overall structure of the game, the tone, the atmosphere and the storytelling are all very different to Epic’s blockbuster. (And for my money, I ended up enjoying Quantum Theory a lot more than I ever liked Gears of War, but your own mileage on that may, as ever, vary.)

To dismiss Quantum Theory as nothing more than a Gears of War clone is reductive, overly simplistic and superficial. Is it a masterpiece of a game? Probably not. But it is interesting — particularly when you consider the people behind it — and that, for many of us, is reason enough to give it a chance.


More about Quantum Theory

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