It’s been 6 years since Remedy released the magnificent curiosity that was Alan Wake, an ambitious project with a clear focus on narrative. But while that game was a love letter to horror in the vein of Twin Peaks, Stephen King, and Twilight Zone, Quantum Break is a time-travel Sci-Fi story. The televisual influence that saw Alan Wake “Season 1” separated into “episodes” is even more evident this time because Remedy only went and professionally produced a bunch of 25-minute-long TV episodes to sandwich between each act of the game.
Quantum Break begins with Jack Joyce returning to the University of Riverport, a city he hasn’t visited for 6 years since a major falling-out with his brother Will. The city’s changed a lot since he was last around, with extensive restructuring taking place thanks to Monarch Solutions, a nebulous corporation that seems interested in aggressively asserting its presence. Jack is visiting his old best friend Paul Serene, who alongside Will, is involved in a very ambitious project at the University: a time machine. Jack helps Paul test the machine’s capabilities, which (predictably) leads to its malfunctioning, and both men are caught in a wave of energy as the world around them begins to warp. With Paul trapped in the machine, Jack escapes with his brother Will while rapidly learning that his proximity to the time machine’s breakdown has gifted him a level of control over time. This isn’t enough to save Will, however, when a much older-looking Paul arrives in command of aggressive Monarch troops and boasting time powers of his own.
Jack’s mission to save Will and fix time as it rapidly breaks down (the world around you periodically freezes in what’s referred to as “stutters”, which become more severe and frequent as the game progresses) is facilitated through stretches of third person cover-based combat peppered with linear exploratory sections laden with narrative extras and tidbits.
In combat, Jack controls very much like a standard cover-based shooter protagonist, automatically ducking behind nearby cover and handling a range of guns from pistols and SMGs to rifles and LMGs.
Where Quantum Break mixes up the standard cover-shooter fare is in the utilisation of Jack’s powers of time manipulation. You can dash a short distance in a fraction of a second, triggering slow-motion upon stopping to shoot at startled foes. You can hold down the dash button instead to trigger a sprint while the world around you slows to a crawl, which lets you outrun enemy fire and manually dispatch foes with high velocity Superman punches. You can hurl a glob of stopped time, freezing an enemy in their tracks, and pump bullets into the bubble while they’re helpless. Charging up the same attack causes a sizeable blast of time-disruption in the area, functioning essentially like a powerful grenade. You can trigger a bubble shield around you that slows time for caught enemies and reflects back any rounds fired your way, giving you time to breathe, recover, and reload.
Most confusing within the context of “time powers” is Time Vision, which is exactly the same as whatever “Sixth Sense Vision” is offered in games like Tomb Raider, Far Cry: Primal, and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I’m not quite sure how “ability to manipulate and withstand fluctuations in the flow of time” trickles down into “ability to see enemies, explosive objects and narrative expository objects highlighted through walls”, but there you go.
On a tangent for a moment, I’m a bit tired of the “Detective Vision”, or “Survival Vision”, or whatever each game decides to call its version of that mechanic. While it’s undoubtedly useful for highlighting objects of interest in cluttered environments, I find that it tends to diminish my immersive experience somewhat. I’m prone to leaning on it a bit too heavily, continually re-upping my Special Vision as I progress for fear of bumbling past important details. Stopping to trigger my ESP and spinning 360 degrees every few seconds does not a good experience make, and I think I’d rather be encouraged to explore the environment as it was meant to be seen.
Anyway. Back to combat. While you’re encouraged to make use of cover, Quantum Break isn’t built to be played too conservatively. Enemies are fairly aggressive, and will attempt to flank you while your stupid face is glued to cover. Staying still isn’t safe, so you’re forced to make use of your time powers to protect yourself against the odds stacked against you by manipulating your enemies. While potential for experimentation isn’t quite as ripe as I would’ve liked (I was hoping for a Dishonored-esque level of power combination, but then few could hope to match that), the game does a good job of making you feel like a real glass cannon.
Unfortunately, the combat’s lack of depth isn’t helped by the dearth of variety. Enemy types are limited to normal soldiers, soldiers in suits that negate your time powers, and finally heavily-armoured soldiers that you need to circumnavigate to shoot at the weak spot on their back. Add in the linear, boring design of the arenas you’ll find yourself in, and after a while the game feels very repetitive.
Quantum Break is flush with non-combat sections, navigating (unfortunately underused and easy) environmental puzzles and a strong focus on storytelling through whatever narrative objects you can find in the world. Like in Alan Wake, the quality of this optional content is very high, and while it took me the better part of the game’s first Act to settle into the rhythm of reading reams of this content, I was soon lapping it up with fervour. Remedy really has a talent for storing both important revelations and frivolous amusement in their side content to enrich their world and characters. I particularly overjoyed by a series of emails in which a character outlines his manuscript for a schlocky Sci-Fi action movie called “Time Knife”.
However, slower expository sections are plagued with the same issue that afflicts a lot of games: the Slow Walk. I don’t know why Remedy, and every other studio that does the same, thinks it’s a good idea to arbitrarily limit the player’s movement for minutes at a time, but the shift in pace is maddening and in a game that encourages the player to seek out every nook and cranny for delicious detail, it’s not a design decision that promotes exploration.
A lot of the buzz surrounding this game surrounds the fact that Remedy actually produced a professionally-shot series of live-action episodes that comprise the “Quantum Break show”. These focus not on Jack Joyce but rather revolve around a cast of side characters forking for Monarch Solutions. Making use of the same actors whose voices and likenesses are lent to their digital counterparts, the show is pretty good. It’s not an especially high-budget affair, with a production quality equalling that of a particularly accomplished web series rather than that of a network show. Nevertheless, the actors acquit themselves admirably, none more so than the incomparable Aidan Gillen who creates a deliciously nuanced antagonist (I refuse to label him a villain) in Paul Serene. Performances are really good all around, though, and Remedy’s record of blending digital and live-action imagery reduces potential dissonance between the video game and the show.
Events in the game and the show are both affected by information you gather and decisions made in the game. At the end of each Act, control shifts briefly from protagonist to antagonist as Paul Serene is forced to make a decision between two courses of action. As bizarre-a proposition it is to shape the kind of man your main antagonist is rather than the protagonist, it’s also an effective insight into the the character and the decisions he must make.
The nature of the storyline branching with Paul Serene’s decisions could be criticised for the lack of effect on actual events, save for the fate of some minor characters. I don’t really mind this, though, since Quantum Break’s narrative is rife with themes of determinism and inevitability.
Quantum Break is overall a very linear affair. Environments don’t feel as open or “natural” as the areas Alan Wake’s Bright Springs presented us with, and while the game places us in exquisitely detailed environments, there is a certain lack of variety to proceedings. You’ll fight through samey grimy urban environments and sterile offices, rendered with a predominantly grey or white palette. Perhaps I’m noticing it more because we’ve been so spoiled for colourful releases recently in The Witness, Firewatch, and Stardew Valley. It’s a shame because Alan Wake’s atmosphere was deliriously thick with character and tension, but the areas of Quantum Break lack that personality.
This relative blandness does, however, emphasise the spectacle of the fantastic, and the game offers the fantastic with aplomb. Shifts and manipulations of time are paired with trademark ripples of clean-shatter particle effects that ooze style. As time stutters and shudders, the whole world twists and shifts around you with an unnerving, almost sickening quality. Sometimes you’ll progress through levels mid-stutter, humans frozen and airborne objects hanging suspended. I was impressed that such objects would shift and continue to hang in the air should you brush up against them. You’re not the only one with the ability to move undisturbed by stutters, however: Monarch soon employs Striker teams equipped with stutter proof suits. These foes pose extra danger since your time stop ability doesn’t affect them, neutering a major offensive ability of yours. Taking these more difficult foes out feels all the more rewarding as they pirouette and freeze midair, their vital packs leaking neon-yellow fuel like lifeblood.
Even the sound design hammers home the reality-breaking effect of your abilities. The sounds of battle and the soundtrack itself warp and change when you trigger your abilities, punctuating each outburst of your powers with a rush of auditory energy.
Quantum Break’s crowning achievement is its story. The game presents us with a high-concept and deeply thought-out Sci-Fi narrative with a fascinating antagonist in Paul Serene and an interesting and well fleshed-out cast of side characters from both the show and the game proper. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of unfulfilled promise, though. There are some revelations that aren’t pulled off with enough gravitas to feel important and while I respect Remedy’s dedication to preserving some mystery, I’d like to have been able to peek behind the curtain of some developments a bit more before the end of the game.
But the weakest link by far in this story is the protagonist. Although Shawn Ashmore provides a strong performance, Jack Joyce is an uninteresting cipher. His ability to blow away Monarch soldiers with ease (and seemingly without care) is explained through hints of a criminal background that I’d like to have seen explored. All of the shielded vulnerability and complex rebellions of the younger Jack that are alluded to in some of the side content are absent in the man we control through Quantum Break’s shooting gallery. Jack is undoubtedly stubborn and determined to rage against the odds, but that’s not interesting. Alan Wake was an average, troubled, fearful, flawed character. Jack Joyce is just another bestubbled guy with a gun, and not a very interesting character to inhabit.
Quantum Break is an excellent and thought-provoking narrative wrapped up in a competent game. The quality of the writing and world building, as well as the relatively high-quality live action segments, build a compelling narrative that makes me wish for more. With slightly more deep mechanics, more variety of play and simply more time to let the story breathe, Quantum Break could’ve been something very special indeed. As it is, I’m not sure it’s much more than a memorable oddity.