For as wide and varied as the scope of video games can be, it’s clear to see that nobody quite makes games like Remedy Entertainment. Their ambitious concoctions of satisfying third-person shooting with innovative mechanics and intrigue-laced, mystery-rich stories (with a little full motion video thrown in for spice) are the recipe for a continued series of increasingly unique titles. In Quantum Break, Remedy have pushed the boundaries of video games even further, creating a unique gaming and television narrative hybrid, where the actions of the player directly influences both. The result is a one-of-a-kind storytelling experience, packed to the gills with innovations and joys.
At the heart of Quantum Break is a classic time travel revenge tale. Taking control of Jack Joyce (Shawn Ashmore, best known as Bobby Drake from X-Men), players are tasked with uncovering the mystery surrounding their brother, William Joyce, and his research into time manipulation. William (Dominic Monaghan, Charlie from LOST) and his research partner, Paul Serene (Aiden Gillen, Littlefinger from Game of Thrones) have managed to successfully create a working time machine and need Jack’s help to get it operational. When disaster strikes, Jack is imbued with new time-based powers, Paul turns cruel and William is murdered. These events set Jack on a course of revenge across the fictional town of Riverport, as he tries to get to the bottom of the mystery and discover the true motives of the sinister Monarch Industries. The intrigue and discovery process is the best part of any good mystery, so saying anything more about the plot would be unkind. Needless to say, it’s worth sticking around to the end for.
As a result of his exposure to the experiment gone awry, Jack quickly discovers he has access to a suite of powers that allow him to manipulate time in specific manners. Ultra-fast dashes and bullet time-esque aiming help him to get the drop on enemies, whilst bubble time shields can slow bullets and displace foes. Each of the half dozen powers has a use in combat, helping accentuate Jack’s uncanny knack for shooting people in the head. Combat situations are a traditional third-person shooter affair, but your opponents are much craftier than in most games. Look for enemies to be aggressively trying to flank, or positioning themselves in a way that prevents the most effective use of your powers. It’s almost as though they’ve trained to fight Jack all along…
The use of powers helps to elevate a standard story-based third person shooter to something greater. The combat scenarios are snappy, strategic and more challenging than one would traditionally expect. New powers, weaponry and enemy types are rolled out at a pretty fast rate, leading to combat constantly evolving. One minor complaint is that new weaponry stops appearing around the beginning of the fourth (of five) acts. Another round of interesting guns would have made for an even more stimulating final stretch.
The joy of Quantum Break is in the discovery of clues throughout the environment and letting your mind run rampant over them as you play. Finding a piece of evidence, theorizing on its meaning, ascertaining clarification and making new theories from that clarification is a loop your mind will be on constantly when playing Quantum Break, both in and out of the game. I found myself trying to pluck apart the story and determine the rules of time travel within the Quantum Break universe constantly, trying to get ahead of the game. This is excellently supplemented by the amount and variety of side content spread within the game world. From emails and letters to home videos and sketches, there is an abundance of extraneous materials to help fill in gaps and fuel conspiracies. A player with a careful eye will discover twists, permutations and betrayals hours before the central narrative catches up, as well as more than a good handful of carefully constructed red herrings. The team at Remedy have done an incredible job at ensuring your mind is racing over every clue and story beat from beginning to end, and leaving you with plenty to ponder once the game is through.
What truly sets Quantum Break apart from other games, at least narratively, is its use of long-form, live action video in between acts. These four episodes, each nearly half an hour long, expand on the plot of the game and help flesh out the fiction of the world. They’re fun and engaging, and at around the quality level you’d expect from a modern superhero TV show, like Arrow or Gotham. The acting is pretty good and the plot is fun to follow along with, but it’s clear that the budget for these sections was on the lower end of the scale. It’s a unique ride, and hopefully something that could be emulated or improved upon in other titles in the future. As we barrel towards a world with real world actors increasingly playing more and more video game characters, there’s an avenue for more content like this.
As you play the game, choices and discoveries you make will impact the plot of the live action show. Everything from characters living or dying, to the scenery in the background of shots will alter in increasingly divergent ways the deeper into the game you go. Ultimately, if you want to see how the sausage gets made you can go in and replay your choices, but like at the end of a season of a Telltale game, you’re left with a feeling that your version of events was the only way it could have gone. The live-action segments in previous Remedy games have been small, one-off side jokes in the background of scenes, and have been universally loved. Expanding them out into a fully-fledged tier of the gameplay was a risk, but one that ultimately paid off in droves. Maybe it’s just because I’m a sucker for these specific actors and good time travel stories, but I loved these parts.
The performance capture used on all the lead characters across the board is fantastic. Players who know the actors from their previous work will recognize familiar tics and cues from their past. In particular, the facial animation is superb – video games tend to have a hard time making characters emote effectively, or fall into the trap of having characters with soulless, dead eyes. Luckily (with the small exception of Beth Wilder’s questionable hair), this is easily some of the most impressive work I’ve ever seen. There can be a little texture pop-in and a bit of muddiness from time to time, but it’s nothing unreasonable. The visual design of the shattering of time and the stutters is unique, but can be distracting and disorienting. The superb sound design really helps sell the stutters as well, as the soundtrack chops and changes in increasingly violent and severe ways. I wouldn’t go so far as to call these pleasant, but they’re damn effective. The soundtrack is good, but unmemorable – there’s no Children of the Elder God as far as this reviewer has found, unfortunately.
What’s stuck with me the most about Quantum Break over this last week or two is the ways in which it feels comfortable to subvert storytelling and genre expectations across both video games and television. Time travel stories are always difficult to convey to the audience, and being able to find a way to tell an interesting tale and not subvert your own rules relating to time travel is a precarious balance to walk. Not only does Quantum Break achieve this, but it does so in a way that leaves the audience wanting, and will have them immediately scrambling for the controller to see if they missed anything the first time around. Leaving the audience satisfied, and still curious about the world? That’s a master stroke.
Quantum Break is a game truly greater than the sum of its parts. Broken apart, it’s a good time travel story, with a good gameplay loop, with a decent TV show thrown in to boot. Combined, however, it’s a well-acted, well told, completely unique story which could very well carve out its own genre in the future. It’s damn unique, and I’ll be thinking about it for a long, long time to come.