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Quantum Break (PC) artwork

Quantum Break (PC) review

"Where “Time Heals All Wounds” Could Be Literal"

Quantum Break is less of a breakthrough for Remedy as it’s more of a self-reflection as to what makes their games sublime. In the wake of games like Hellblade, it genuinely surprises me how QB never received the same level of acclaim as a high-fidelity, linear experience with an emphasis on storytelling. If you enjoyed Alan Wake and the first two Max Payne titles, then everything that made these games great can be found all throughout QB. Had this title launched at the time of American Wasteland, it would have more likely resonated with the audience as the lack of its positive reception makes me believe it’s a sign of changing times.

“Time is your weapon” as the adverts proclaim, but it also appears to be a weapon with a double-edge. QB feels like a game designed for audiences of the past who appeared to have waned in modern publishers’ eyes whom have forgone linear, story-focused experiences. Modern audiences unfamiliar to Remedy would probably find more fault with their multiple medium approach (a.k.a. live-action TV mixed with gaming) when this is their signature mark. Every aspect of QB feels like it fell victim to this disconnect--of time, of place, and of Remedy’s identity--that puts into question not only the future of the series but also of Remedy’s studio.

Gameplay has never been Remedy’s strongest suit as developers, but they have always come up with innovative ways to utilize familiar mechanics from other mediums into new ideas. Inspired by the cinematic effects from the John Woo and Matrix films, Max Payne made the mechanic of Bullettime™ an iconic part of many beloved series. Inspired from Stephen King and Twilight Zone shows, Alan Wake turned the idea of campy, psychological thriller horror into a gameplay mechanic revolved around using light as a weapon. In these regards, Quantum Break feels less like a refinement and more so simply derivative of their past games when they utilize “Time as a weapon” more as a narrative tool with more gameplay liberties as what that really means.

Like its past games, QB is a third-person shooter with modern touches like aiming down sights and auto-cover, which is often more of a hindrance and encourages more mobile gameplay. It’s really the usage of these time abilities as well as the narrative that carry the game, and it’s these time abilities that feel like the most disjointed of ideas. Say what you will about Max Payne 3 from Rockstar taking this concept too far in the other extreme; the cover system was reliable, responsive and realistic towards the type of narrative they were creating. QB feels like its time-mechanics are simultaneously too diverse to make sense as well as being arbitrary abilities. In these latter cases, the only explanation that excuses these shortsighted moments is the fact that the character you play is unfamiliar using these abilities and he is the type of character to remember them only when the plot is convenient.

Perhaps some of the blame should be given to the decision to make a game focused on an abstract concept like time than something simple like light. Light is a concept that is well-executed in AW with making various means centered on how the player uses it. The flashlight was the main weapon for the player whereas flashbangs and flares were more defensive measures, and the set-pieces they could create were all focused on how to make the light mechanics more playful together. It’s this last statement that really does shed a light on the problem of making time a focus; it’s too restrictive on its own, and it can only feel disjointed when put together. Bullettime™, Time Stop, Time Rush and Time Dodge are all variations on the same idea of affecting speed that work together; Time Shield, Time Vision, Time Blast and even Reverse Time all feel like detracting elements. Even excusing the idea that Time Shield and Time Blast are focused on manipulating spacetime like gravity, these feel like mechanics made that don’t add to the other games other than giving some damage abilities. At worst, with the case of Reverse Time and Time Vision, they can feel more videogamey than they should as they point out how arbitrary is their usage by their limitations.

Does this mean the gameplay is bad? No, the combat elements are perfectly fine, and these abilities only make the combat more distinct from other TPS, even compared to Max Payne. QB is not a bad experience to play, but it does highlight a loss of some identity that feels more important from the community than from Remedy with how they approached this story.

Before we discuss the issues of the multi-medium storytelling of Quantum Break, it cannot be understated how spectacular of a storyline they have created in spite of its few issues. If there is anything about Remedy that remains true as ever is they know how to write entertaining narratives that are always timeless, and Quantum Break manages to outshine their past successes by not only being their best story but also possibly the best time-travel narrative of all time.

Having experienced hundreds of time-travel narratives, movies, games, etc. from Asimov to H.G. Wells, Quantum Break is the most unique approach to time-travel manages to rewrite the book not by laying out new rules but by explaining them in the most interesting way. Without going into spoiler-territory, the usage of time-travel is less about rules that the narrative must follow where the past can be overwritten like Back to the Future and more about exploring the perspectives that are created from time-travel. Characters have different interpretations of how time changes, and it not only characterizes their course of actions but also challenges the player with thinking how time works. This all cultivates into making the question, “Can Time Be Changed?,” into less of a question for speculation and more about a human battle of perspectives as the story focuses on two friends, Jack Joyce and Paul Serene.

This approach avoids the common pitfall of many time-travel stories which is the amount of paradoxes they can create. Not only does QB play more freely with its rules it does use techniques like foreshadowing and other literary devices to make the continuity work without being explicit until it clicks with the player. What the narrative in the game achieves cannot be understated as it reaches the pinnacle of great science-fiction, which is to make the science more human, more relatable and more critical for audiences unfamiliar with them to explore many questions beyond their minds.

Now I talked only about the game’s narrative is because it’s entirely focused on the conflict between Jack and Paul. In contrast, the live-action episodes attempt to gamify TV shows in a noble attempt to keep players engaged with the universe and to flesh out additional lore that would be beyond the scope of Jack. This is because these five 25-min episodes exclusively focus on everyone beside Jack with only a few superfluous decisions made by the player as Paul Serene to give them some context in-game.

While it would be more appropriate to make everything in-game as Paul and Jack played back-to-back, the execution of this idea of blending two different media is well-done and it is not uncommon. Max Payne brought comic-book cutscenes; Alan Wake took TV horror spoofs as easter-eggs for Night Spring episodes; and Quantum Break takes the modern appeal of low-budget series on YouTube with the same campiness of Night Springs. If you enjoyed these quirky spectacles, then these live-action bits are nothing extreme, simply a new different take on their identity. As with something that is inherently different, QB is a game that will hopefully be appreciated in time rather than another forgotten memory.

Brian's avatar
Community review by Brian (December 26, 2021)

Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.

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