Quantum Break is a lively time-travelling jaunt, that takes a bold new approach to story-telling by melding a video game and TV show into one. Boasting enjoyable gameplay and an intriguing story, Quantum Break is a pleasant time travelling ride, but noticeable blemishes make for a game that is easier to criticise than praise, despite being an overall great experience.
In Quantum Break you play as Jack Joyce, who was travelling the world until his close friend, Paul Serene, reaches out for help. Upon arriving at Riverport University, you quickly learn that Serene has been constructing a time machine, and wants you to be part of the first tests. As you might expect, things go horribly wrong, with the time machine malfunctioning, causing a fracture in time that will eventually result in the end of time itself. In the ensuing disaster Serene ends up killing your brother, William, a physicist who has also been wrestling with the concept of time travel. And thus the stage is set for a traditional tale of revenge, a blueprint Quantum Break follows beat for beat in the first three, of its five act arc. Thankfully Remedy somewhat break from this blueprint in the third act, with the emergence of several sub-plots. I’ll refrain from detailing the exacts events for spoiler reasons, but suffice it to say they are juicy, captivating, and thought-provoking. These elements are the most alluring part of Quantum Break’s narrative; the pinnacle of which is a stellar, awe-inspiring fourth act, that manages to completely change the context of the three previous acts. Woefully, the fifth act completely ignores these other threads (bar a tantalising post-credits cliff-hanger), returning the focus to the revenge-plot – which plays out more or less as one might expect, resulting in a frustratingly second-rate, and lacklustre ending.
Accompanying the narrative told through the gameplay and cut-scenes, are a series of TV episodes that play at the end of each act. Before each of these twenty-plus minute instalments there are “Junctions”, where the player plays as Paul Serene, choosing between one of two outcomes; such as attempting to cover up the events at the university, or eliminating the witnesses. It was great to see the story playing out from Paul’s perspective, especially as the moments leading up to making the decision are filled with dialogue that details his thoughts and mindset. These moments help to develop a potentially otherwise flat and mundane villain, as well as giving players a genuine dilemma; act in the best interests of Paul or Jack? Delightedly these choices can significantly alter following events, such as which characters help and accompany Jack on his journey. That being said, these “junctions” have no truly major impact on the story; ultimately the major plot points play out the same, with only the window dressing changing. Consequently, there’s a lack of imperative to go back and change your choices, other than to satisfy curiosity.
Each TV episode deals with the immediate fallout from the choice you made at the respective “junction”, from the perspectives of Monarch employees (The quintessential evil, heavily armed cooperation, that Paul Serene runs in secret). I particularly enjoyed the multi-perspective approach Remedy took to telling the story, with the TV strand showing how ordinary employees dealt with the time fracture and Monarch conspiracy. In places there is a surprising depth to the development of these characters, given the time allotted, although almost every character could have benefitted from more screen time. Ultimately the twenty minute segments are too short and sparse to establish any attachment to characters, who are mostly absent outside of the TV.
Beguilingly there are moments during gameplay sections, where you can impact events that take place in these TV episodes; such as solving an equation on a white board, or dumping a sign in a forest. Disappointingly these moments are never mentioned more than just in passing, and feel like a missed opportunity. Why not allow the player to choose from a number of ways for the scene to play out, at least then these moments would have a degree of significance? Frankly their impact is so miniscule that there’s no point in them being there, other than a narcissistic display of the impressive technical work required to implement them. However, the most disappointing element of these TV episodes is the lack of interdependence, with the events that occur in the TV show having little to no effect on the events that occur within the game segments. Dolefully they feel like two separate stories that only loosely interconnect, rather than contributing to a single, cohesive narrative.
The quality of the TV show is more than adequate, finding a more than watchable sweet spot between high-end network productions, and low budget productions. The performances are decent, although far more B-list, than the A-list-bragging promotional material would have led you to believe. There’s a handful of relatively impressive fight sequences, and even an exciting car-chase sequence. Personally though, I found the set and prop design to be the most remarkable, pulling off incredible reproductions of in-game assets, as well as an impressive imagining of a real life Monarch. The one exception to the above is when CGI time stutters take place, which look like Remedy copied and pasted clip art from Google Images.
As I mentioned before, the junctions help to paint a far more compelling picture of Quantum Break’s characters, but in this department the true highlights are the collectibles. For the most part I’m fairly agnostic when it comes to pouring through collectibles; normally only spending time to read them in beloved games, but just as happy glossing over them. Yet in Quantum Break I found myself paying meticulous attention to every email I found. Always well-written, they conveyed absorbing backstories for every character, that helps players understand their motivations and actions; adding layers of emotion and depth to otherwise stale characters. Additionally, many give context to otherwise meaningless terms such as “Lifeboat Protocol” and “CFR”. Particularly stellar was a diary entry from Beth, one of Jack’s companions, which was so well written and heartfelt that I went from being indifferent, to earnestly enamoured with her.
Most of Quantum Break’s narrative highlights are hidden in these collectibles, making the act of searching for them rewarding, but leaving an almost anecdotal adventure for those who blaze past them. Yes, there’s the expected, almost obligatory, smattering of throwaway collectibles, but even a number of these are entertaining, such as a purposefully terrible screen play, and my personal favourite, the option to play an audiobook over the Monarch com channel to hilarious effect. If you take the time to play through Remedy’s latest, burrowing through the collectibles is a must!
Being a third person shooter, Quantum Break has Jack Joyce facing off against the same motley crew of textbook enemies. Enter stage left the SMG and assault rifle carrying trash mobs, accompanied by shotgunners, snipers and everyone favourite, heavies. The stage itself is an almost cliché array of warehouses, carparks, offices etc. As for the shooting itself, there’s not much to say other than thankfully it’s not bad, but it’s hardly great either, and certainly one of Quantum Break’s weakest links. What helps Quantum Break’s gameplay to stand out from the crowd of standard, run of the mill third person shooters, is the array of time manipulation powers you might expect from a game about time travel.
These powers are one of the true highlights of Quantum Break, providing moments that are both exhilarating, and quite frankly feel bad-ass. Unfortunately, there are only five powers on display, (A sixth if you count the time vision that lets you mark enemies) although each one is thrilling to use. Time Dodge lets you quickly dart from point to point, either to escape grenades and gunfire, or close in on enemies to unleashing a satisfying shotgun blast in their face. A similar power, Time Rush, slows time down for everyone but you, allowing you to run around Flash-style, and unleash a satisfying melee attack that is always accompanied by a beautiful cinematic animation. Time Stop allows you to freeze time within a bubble, stopping enemies in their tracks while you pour bullets onto the time stop, only to have it collapse, hitting said enemies with dozens of bullets at once.
As I said, each of these powers feels exhilarating to use, and from the first enemy to the last, there’s a sense of awe each time you use them. That being said, you’ll be longing for a more diverse range of powers from the halfway mark onwards. When you’re playing as a time-controlling superhero, quite frankly you want more than just five ways to approach combat, especially considering Time Dash and Time Rush, and Time Shield and Time Stop function more or less the same (One speeds you up, the other slows time down). It doesn’t help that these powers can’t really be combined together, with no noticeable power-chaining mechanics in play. Experimenting to find out exactly what your powers are capable of is part and parcel of the fun of games where you have said powers, but opportunity’s to do so are grievously missing from Quantum Break.
Combat sections are interspersed with the occasional platforming and/or time puzzle sections. While both provide a nice change of pace, they are not without their flaws. For instance, the platforming feels lose and floaty – almost clumsy – lacking the precision or feedback required to accurately judge whether or not Jack will land in the desired place. As such you’ll end up missing jumps through no fault of your own, quickly leading to frustration. The time puzzles on the other hand are truly inspired, revolving around manipulating the timelines of certain objects. For instance, shooting down planks of wood suspended from the ceiling, and then proceeding to stand on them while reversing having shot them down. Later on in the game you’ll be tasked with combining this concept with your other powers, to some truly spectacular results. Sadly, these sections are never very complex or challenging, but their always fun, and will be one of my biggest takeaways from Quantum Break’s ten-plus hour campaign.
My biggest complaint against Quantum Break is lack lustre design, resulting in humdrum encounters; that amount to nothing more than facing off against archetypal enemies in archetypal arenas. Time powers aside, Quantum Break plays like your bog standard, run of the mill, third person shooter, and quite frankly, we’ve all been here and done this too many times before. Desperately lacking is a couple of set pieces here and there to break up the monotony and predictability of combat. Devastatingly the closest the game comes to set pieces is when it puts you in situations where you lose access to your powers, which just make the game straight up painful to play. And then there’s the final boss, which would be uneventful and boring, save for a mechanic that feels both cheap, and as if it was designed by an amateur – suffice it say it leaves a most bitter taste in your mouth.
So as we come to the end of my review, let’s take a moment to reflect on what Remedy attempted to achieve with Quantum Break. Story-telling in video games is always difficult to effectively convey, especially considering the best story-telling takes place when you’re not actually playing. As such, despite displaying several flaws, I have to commend Remedy on their attempts to redefine story-telling in games and push the medium forward. Quantum Break performs fantastically as a proof of concept, but it fails to truly deliver on what those concepts have to offer. In many ways Quantum Break is a stepping stone that lays down the foundations for what is to come, and while it stops well short of being breath taking, the potential for a sequel is undeniable.
I have deep respect and appreciation for what Remedy attempts to achieve with Quantum Break. However, appreciation and critique are two different entities, and Quantum Break’s flaws are too numerous to ignore. Despite telling an extremely intriguing story, taking bold steps with how to display narrative in video games, and showcasing exhilarating gameplay mechanics, Quantum Break never does anything memorable. As a concept, Quantum Break is outstanding, but the resulting video game falls short, unfortunately being nothing more than just good .