Magrunner: Dark Pulse wants so badly to be Portal it can taste it. I don’t think I’m doing the game or 3AM Games (developer) injustice to point out that Magrunner was modeled closely in Portal’s image, and this isn’t necessarily a criticism. Portal is an inspiration and there is clearly much room for creativity in the first-person action puzzler genre. To its credit, if you loved the core concept of gameplay in Portal, there is a decent chance you will get a kick out of Magrunner as well. Here’s the problem: while Portal hits a home run in everything it tries to do, Magrunner is a scattershot of hits and misses.
I’m just going to jump right into the story. What does a story do for a game? I spend a lot of my mulling-things-over time on this topic. I usually tend to focus on games in which the player has a direct impact on the story, but I can’t deny that there is a role for story in games with a linear plot as well. Portal was a masterpiece of richness in simplicity. Its story only had two characters, only one of which spoke. The script was so phenomenal that the one character was all that was really needed. So you remember how Portal started out with a cutesy, clever laboratory setting, and then takes a left turn into a fight for survival? Well, Magrunner starts out with a clever laboratory setting and then takes a left turn into honest-to-goodness, I-kid-you-not Cthulhu. I almost feel bad pointing this plot twist out if it weren’t already all over their marketing – there was, I think, room for a more insidious, drawn out reveal that yup, your suspicions are correct. We’re going straight-up Lovecraft here.
I’m sure there are a lot of folks out there who will eat up this game’s storyline thanks to Cthulhu, allusions to dark rituals, and implications of murderously insane cultists/devotees, however it just wasn’t doing it for me. The script was pretty flat which probably didn’t do the voice actors any favors, and I found myself not very invested in any of the characters. They might have tried a little too hard to be dark. Maybe it would have worked better if it tried to poke a little darkly-humored fun at Cthulhu mythos rather than play it straight. After the initial “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” over a PA system, the subsequent attempts at plot twists just made me shrug and “meh.”
It’s a shame the story didn’t get more reaction out of me, because Magrunner has some good stuff in its core mechanics, puzzles, and level design. Similarly to Portal (again), the basic mechanic is very simple and it’s the many creative ways to use it that comprise the challenge of the game. Instead of shooting two different-colored holes on the wall, you’re shooting two different-colored magnetic fields on objects that can hold a magnetic charge. Charge one box red and the other green, and they repel each other. Charge them both red or both green, and they attract. The puzzles revolve around several types of gadgets that make use of these mechanics. Boxes and platforms must be pushed and pulled around, arranging pathways and setting up the next challenge. Some of the puzzles get downright diabolical in a good way. Magrunner puzzles are more about moving parts than Portal‘s are, and I was pleased to realize after awhile that I was “thinking with magnets.”
Overall puzzle design is decent without being extraordinary. There weren’t very many “that just happened!” jaw-dropping stunts or realizations of “they want me to do what now?” (although there is one that stands out to me big time). There were, however, plenty of legit moments of satisfaction when all the pieces clicked into place as the pathway forward lay open. In fact, if the developers are up for it, Magrunner might have more life as a pure puzzler than a story. There’s potential here for subsequent expansions including many, many more creative puzzles and hours of additional gameplay.
It’s perhaps unfair to relentlessly compare Magrunner to Portal, but I think it’s a pigeonhole they placed themselves into with their design choices. Whereas Portal’s stark white lab settings give way to a rusted, industrial reality, Magrunner‘s slightly more colorful lab settings give way to a rusted industrial reality that itself gives way to Lovecraftian motifs and shrines to eldritch horrors. Magrunner does manage to score on the setting design, although, I think they brought about the changes a bit suddenly (a more gradual evolution would have been more effective). I was thoroughly creeped out. The soundtrack focuses on creepy, drawn-out, squealing strings, the kind that make your skin crawl and make you think you are building to some sort of revealing scare. It was pretty effective on me. By the time Cthulhu himself (itself?) makes an appearance, it’s pretty clear the sh*t has hit the fan.
One distinction from Portal worth mentioning is that there are a few areas with mobile enemies that must be engaged in combat – a far cry from Portal’s turrets that are only a threat in their line of sight. Now, the combat isn’t about blasting them in the face with a shotgun. The idea is to set them up for a trap you’ve designed, usually involving launching an explosive box at them. These traps are usually simple to spring and are more about maneuvering your character than puzzling the game mechanics, but it’s still worth mentioning that Portal rarely put the player under much threatening pressure from a chasing adversary that added an element of time rush to the puzzling challenges. Coupled with the general psychological effects of scary monsters in scary settings, and Magrunner showed itself to have some pretty special tricks up its sleeve. It’s harder for me to keep my head wrapped around puzzling when my fear has been engaged. The scares never get extreme, but a little touch of it was all I needed for one of the desired effects of the game. Unfortunately, such moments weren’t often enough for me to consider them a defining feature of the game.
At $19.99 on Steam, Magrunner: Dark Pulse seems aimed more for puzzler fans in need of a first-person fix than a must-play hit for a general audience. The game deserves credit where its due, but if you suspect the price might be out of your range, then you’re probably better off waiting for another Portal than throwing down on a wannabe.
This review is based on a Steam review code of Magrunner: Dark Pulse, developed by 3AM Games, published by Focus Home Interactive.
- Solid Mechanics
- Creepy Atmosphere
- Tries Too Hard to be Dark
- Falls Short of Portal