No one should have any excuse for not knowing Erwin Schroedinger’s famous thought-experiment about the cat that was both alive and dead at the same time, as a metaphor for quantum states. For those of you who forgot, in short, there’s a cat in a sealed box with a vial of poison, a detector, and a radioactive isotope. If the isotope decays, the detector detects it, breaks the vial, poison is released and the cat dies. If it doesn’t decay, the cat is alive and well. Without opening the box, how do you know if the cat is alive or dead? You don’t…until you open the box and observe the cat, it is both dead and alive at the same time. Don’t worry, though. No real cats were harmed in this experiment. Does all this have much relevance to the review? Why yes. Yes it does. Read on to find out why.
The titular Schrodinger’s Cat, a cat who, I presume is half dead and half alive, is enlisted to help contain a breach at a particle zoo on one small atom somewhere in one universe. Something odd has happened (odd, not strange, because “strange” has a very particular meaning in the zoo, and in particle physics), and now all the various particle animals are on the loose. It’s naturally SC’s job to round them up and get to the bottom of the mess.
On his mission, he’s assisted by the various types of quark that you’ll find in copious quantities, and mixing the quarks in various ways produces differing effects. There are up quarks, that create lift, down quarks that create an explosive downward force, top quarks that create solidness, and bottom quarks that create protectiveness. So, for example, putting three up quarks together creates a little helicopter that lifts SC to heights greater than he can jump. Mix three top quarks, and you get a little platform. Mix together up and top quarks and you’ll have created a little hoverboard. The combos are fairly intuitive once you’ve gotten the basic idea down, but in case you ever forget, the game provides a list of all 16 combinations in the pause screen. There are also charm quarks that you have to collect throughout the game, but they aren’t otherwise directly usable.
The game presents as a side-scrolling procedurally generated platformer, meaning that no two levels are precisely the same. This, as it turns out, has a variety of pros and cons. Your tasks is mostly to simply navigate the level, using the quarks you collect to help you. After a predetermined number of levels, the story proceeds. While this provides for brilliant amounts of replayability and variety in the levels, it’s also not as clean as the procedurally generated stages of a rogue-like, since most of your progress has to be via the puzzle elements presented by the quarks. Furthermore, there’s no way to differentiate between the levels and no way of orienting yourself within the game’s large framework, which is what a predefined stage setup actually does.
On the other hand, the one thing that the game does well, it does incredibly well: be funny (it was nominated for a Writer’s Guild of Ireland award for Best Script in a Video Game). If you have a basic understanding of particle physics (and I mean the most basic—it doesn’t take a lot of knowledge to get most of the jokes) you’ll find the game one of the most hilarious you’ve played in a long time. You’ll also likely come out of the end this game having more than just a rudimentary, if somewhat skewed, knowledge of particle physics. In fact, here’s a short video from one of the developers about the humour in the game.
The music and sounds in the game sound a lot like what you’d get if you crossed the music of Rayman Origins with the music of Ratchet and Clank. It’s a winning formula in my book. The characters’ voices, too, while sometimes repetitive, isn’t overly annoying. It still amazes me that all the voices were performed by a single person.
And here we come to my thing. I think this game would have worked far better as either a standard platformer, or even better, a point-and-click adventure. It has the same kind of kooky humour that you’d find in your standard issue of Monkey Island, to give one example. There are a ton of pop culture references on top of the physics jokes, and the game would just appeal to the same crowd who played the hell out of the old Lucasarts adventures. But in the same breath, I also have to admit that the adventure genre isn’t as big as it used to (Deponia and the like aside), which is a huge pity, because honestly that’s where this kind of humour has the greatest effect. Still, the fact that Italic Pig and Team17 have managed to shoehorn it into a side scrolling platformer is something of a feat in itself.
On the whole, it’s fairly enjoyable, but there’s a weird dichotomy of playing sections mindlessly, while playing other sections with the brain engaged. You never really have to manage your quark numbers, with some small levels being the exception, and these levels were more fun for the lack of quarks. The platforming can at times be a bit clumsy (SC doesn’t always stand firmly on the ground he’s….uh…standing on) but it’s not such an egregious problem that you’re going to toss the controller across the room. It’s fun, it’s funny, and above that, the characters are likeable and have tons of *ahem* charm. No matter how strange they get.
Final Score: 7.5 Dead and Alive Prawns out of 10
Developers: Italic Pig, Team17
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Steam
Age Rating: 7+ (although players at that age will be less likely to understand the humour)