Michael takes a look at Frogwares/3AM Games’ new Lovecraftian, Portal inspired puzzler. Full written review from PCGMedia’s Tom here.
Magrunner: Dark Pulse is a first-person puzzle game, in which the player must use a special handheld device to complete puzzles in a series of experimental chambers. Sound familiar? Let’s see how long I can go without name-dropping that game. Available for a very reasonable £14.99, Magrunner: Dark Pulse advertises itself as an “action-puzzle game in which technology confronts the Cthulhu Mythos”. Cthulhu stuff is always good, so there’s already some bonus points for that. Anyway, in this review I’ll weigh up whether this indie title is worth your dollar, and whether the title is relevent in a world in which Portal already exists. Whoops.
In Magrunner, you play as Jax Ward. Jax is a fairly standard, brash protagonist, who has been selected to compete against several others in completing a series of tests. Whoever successfully completes the tests qualifies for space travel. The story is initially told primarily through interaction with character’s holographs, making it seem occasionally somewhat tacked on. It does occasionally have a bit of a Hunger Games feel though, which works well for the style of game. Things get a bit more interesting once Cthulhu rears his ugly head though, both in story and level design. I won’t ruin exactly what goes down, but it’s similar to Portal when the facility begins to give way to the outside world. There are even a few genuinely creepy moments, although bar some jump scares it never branches out into full-blown horror. I would have liked for them to go even further than they did with the whole Cthulhu mythos, but more on that later. Magrunner never feels like it leaves the formula of stepping from one testing room to another, and it would have been interesting to see them do something a bit more ambitious.
Where Portal had the Portal Gun, Magrunner has a Magnet Gun. I don’t think it has an official name, unless I missed something. Either way, it’s a gun that has the power to change the magnetism of certain materials. It’s actually very clever and well-integrated, with an excellent tutorial that allows you to understand the mechanics in no time. The basic principle is that there are two states of magnetism (like real life), represented by green and red. Opposites repel and same types attract (not like real life). It makes for some very fun puzzles, and more than a few headscratchers. The base concept is fairly simple, although there are a lot of utilities. For example, two same-charged blocks provide double the magnetic power of one block. There are a lot of things to consider, such as magnetic curvature, how far a repelled block can travel, and the shape of the magnetic object. As the game goes on, more mechanics are introduced, which help to add some variety to the challenge, as well as greater difficulty. While this is an intelligent system, it’s never as mind-blowing as the concept of firing portals, or the non-euclidean design of the wonderful Antichamber. Just in case I’ve done a terrible job of explaining the mechanics, here’s a video I made that shows them off:
At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking Magrunner looks a bit plain. The early levels are very clinical, like Portal but with less polish. The level design becomes a lot more interesting later on, as the Cthulhu craziness begins to take hold. Unfortunately, it’s never quite as graceful as the breakdown of order in Portal, and certainly never reaches the visual craziness of Antichamber. Bar a few cool set pieces late-game, there are also few surprises. However, the game’s graphics are adequate, and are great in making some relatively complex mechanics simple to understand. The character design is also quite interesting, with a six-armed, mutated mentor evoking Kimaji from Spirited Away being a particular highlight. Also to note is that the game has made it easy to change-up the colour scheme for colour blind players. It’s almost sad that this easy-to-implement feature should be of note, but it’s good to see devs being conscientious about such things.
Back to the whole ‘Cthulhu’ thing. H.P. Lovecraft’s terrifying cosmic entity, along with the whole ‘Old Ones’ mythology, has fascinated nerds since 1928′s The Call of Cthulhu. The game’s myserious link with Cthulhu was one of the main things that attracted me to Magrunner in the first place. Unfortunately, where the devs could have used the deep mythology to create a great narrative, they instead use the IP for references and the occasional “oh shit” moment. Cthulhu could be replaced with any other ‘big bad’, and the game wouldn’t be much different. Maybe I went in expecting too much, but it feels like a missed opportunity.
I might have been a bit too harsh on Magrunner. When weighed up against Portal and Antichamber, it comes in at a clear third. It is, however, a totally worthwhile game. Controls are fluid, puzzling is difficult but fun, and the storyline does offer more than most in the genre. It’s certainly top-tier stuff in comparison to the puzzle genre as a whole. If you’ve played and enjoyed Portal and Antichamber, then Magrunner comes highly recommended, offering solid puzzles, albeit presented in a much less interesting way. At under £15 for an 11-hour plus single-player adventure, it’s decent bang for buck too. If you want a good, nicely presented puzzler, then you could certainly do worse than Magrunner. Of course, with the recent surge in great indie puzzlers, you could also do better.
Magrunner from 3Am Games (Frogwares) is the latest title to support DRM free GOG.com, where they’re selling the title $16.99, $3 off the RRP price on Steam.
GOG.com traditionally sells ‘good old games’, which is where the name GOG comes from (you didn’t see that coming, right?) Recently, it has been offering new titles at reduced prices without DRM.
Magrunner releases Thursday 20 June 2013. If you haven’t already done so, you can check out our preview of the Portal meets Lovecraft first person puzzler here.
Magrunner: Dark Pulse takes you on a fantastic adventure filled with brilliant physics-based puzzles, mysteries, risk, and breathtaking views. The magnetic mechanics behind the Magtech Glove are quite simple to understand, but not that easy to master. This allows for some very original and challenging level design, that goes perfectly with the game’s twisted story. Splicing together ideas that seemingly don’t have much in common, this game creates an amazing experience you won’t soon forget. If you like your action/puzzles with a pinch of crazy and a whole lot of awesome, make sure not to miss this amazing upcoming title, that will put both your brains and your reflexes to a test!
For those who haven’t read our preview, Magrunner is 3AM Games’ Portal inspired Lovecraftian puzzler, coming to PC, Xbox Live, and Playstation sometime this year.
“In the near future, in 2050, a handful of young and brilliant citizens have been chosen by Gruckezber Corporation to join the Magtech training program for space exploration. Equipped with a special glove using Gruckezberg’s technology, the candidates have to solve their way through a huge maze of challenge rooms, by magnetically charging objects that will attract or repel each other. But when an earthquake disrupts the training program, what seemed to be the chance of a lifetime for the candidates will soon become a descent into folly and cosmic horror! In this video, plunge with Dax, the hero of the game, into a future where Technology confronts the Cthulhu Mythos!”
Check out the trailer and screenshots below.
Frogwares are most commonly known for their critically acclaimed Sherlock Holmes series of adventure games, so when I discovered the developer were planning a Portal inspired first person puzzle game (which was initially crowd funded), I wondered to what degree intellectually strenuous puzzle solving would survive in their new IP, and in a new genre for the developer.
From what I gathered, MagRunner is a first-person puzzle game, with a Lovecraftian aesthetic, set on an off-world facility which, during a tournament, rapidly degrades, as the energy required (and type used) to stream such an event to the people of Earth literally awakes Cthulhu. There is a hint that his awakening is no accident, and behind the prize money and fame of the tournament hides a dark, secret intent by a shady group to bring the world to its knees.
I sat down with Olga Ryzkho, Frogwares, who took me through a few levels of the game and took some of my questions regarding what it has to offer.
“MagRunner is an action-reflexion game developed by 3AM Games (Frogwares) for Playstation Network, Xbox Live, and PC Digital. Magrunner puts the brain and reflexes to the test through challenges based on physics and magnetism.”
Built on Unreal 3, MagRunner is a physics based puzzle game explored through a first person perspective. You play as a competitor in the Magtech competition, created by multi-national company Gruckezber, which aims to promote their magnetism based technologies.
According to Ryzkho, the character has a chance of winning 1 million “credits”, as the entire world watches a live stream of the event from their homes, “however, competitors will soon understand that the sporting event they have entered was hiding a darker secret…”
Gruckezber might not be Aperture Science, but they’ve got their own array of technologies that – equally integral to the success of the title – dictate the mechanics of the game. in MagRunner, we have the Magtech Glove, which is – as you’d expect – a glove that magnetizes. MagRunner is therefore a title about attraction and repulsion, which serves as the core gameplay mechanic.
With physics puzzlers – even more so in the first person perspective – the core mechanic of the game really dictates whether or not the title has the foundations for success. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the levels are, or even if they’re designed well, if your core mechanic (in this case, the Magtech Glove, and concepts of attraction and repulsion) don’t work, your game has little chance for success. It seems however that Frogwares have succeeded at creating a solid and original mechanic for a genre that “Portal 2 proved marketable”.
As Ryzkho explains, your Magtech Glove fires two colours at applicable objects: red, and blue. “Blue is negative, and red is positive – they attract each-other, or they repel each-other.” You can also neutralize an object with grey/silver, which makes that object reactionless. “That is the main mechanic which we will use to explore the 45 levels.”
We started with a very simple example of the mechanics, which has us merely carrying a cube to place on top of a panel, from which we needed to launch the cube vertically. To do this, we merely colourized both the panel and cube until a negative force was applied, which propelled the cube into the air, unlocking the door to enter the next stage. It all sounds very Portal, but things evolve (or devolve) very rapidly, through a “rich story” based experience.
“The entire world is very captivated with this specific tournament, however, some people… politicians… might find these games the perfect opportunity for their bigger games, or their bigger plans. So you have this MagTech technology, which is like a renewable source of energy, and because the whole population across the universe is watching the event – all the energy is focused in one place – which is enough [specifically, MagTech] energy to awake Cthulhu. So your task, as the player, is to save the planet, fight the [Lovecraftian] monsters.”
Ryzkho clarifies on the dynamic, saying that ”it will be a survival challenge, not at the very beginning, but at some point,” which was confirmed by showing us around 5 places in the game, which show a rapidly degrading tournament arena, which, through cracks in the walls, revealed a universe – indicating that we were in fact in space, as “other participants are dying.”
Just to clarify whether or not we were in fact in space, I asked “are we in space?” to which Ryzkho replied “yes.” I asked if we were on a space ship, but according to Ryzkho, it was “the same facility that we started in,” indicating that the game takes place off-planet, on a facility run by Gruckezber.
“Once the player is comfortable with the mechanics, we introduce more complicated and sophisticated scenarios.”
Ryzkho also hinted at Cthulhu altering, or damaging, “the fabric of time,” although I see no evidence of time-travelling as such.
Another interesting mechanical point is the robot dog “Newton.” Newton can be spawned by the player by firing the glove at any applicable surface. This allows the player to effectively propel him or herself by magnetizing whatever surface he or she is on, moving Newton in the direction the player wishes to go.
“You can magnetize him, red or blue, and you can use this ability of Newton to be magnetized in order to influence other different objects.” There’s also a “magnetic rifle” although I didn’t get to see it.
The title differs to Portal in that “there are endless opportunities as to how to finish the level” indicating some freedom with regards to how the mechanics are used. For example, I managed to propel myself on top of a cube by repelling the cube I stood on, flinging it into the air. From the air, I could jump onto a platform and reach the door.
Like Portal, however, there are turrets you must circumvent through creative ways, such as shattering the glass it stands on by flinging cubes at it. The turrets in MagRunner unfortunately do not talk to you, and do not care if you are “still there.”
Being an unavoidable subject, Ryzkho explained that “the game is inspired by Portal. Games like Portal introduce the market potential. The game was pretty successful, it really shows the lack of the games of that kind. Playing the game is fun, and sometimes it’s huge fun, but sometimes you want the game to make you think. There is the right balance to find between fun and challenge, and this is what, actually, we decided to do with MagRunner.”
MagRunner has the potential to be more challenging than Portal in that there are multiple ways to complete the levels. You might think this seems easier, but it merely obfuscates the possible directions. For instance, you might follow one path of deduction that, at some point, merges two opposing paths, leading in failure; whereas in Portal, you need to figure out the right path out of a possible one paths, which means you can only get closer to correct. In MagRunner, it seems you can dig yourself into a pit of despair by following the challenge either in the wrong order, or merging two lines of deduction that are actually mutually exclusive.
The core mechanic is a great success, and influencing the environment with the games major “gimmick” is entertaining and logical. Positive and negative attraction is a fairly simple concept to grasp, and there was a risk that the physics simply wouldn’t be finite enough to make it work. For instance, if I have to launch myself from an object – on an object – where must I place my object in order to launch it at the right angle to reach my destination? These problems didn’t really arise, and it was immediately evident when I had either made a mistake or barked up the wrong magnetic tree.
Whilst the similarities between Portal and MagRunner were painstakingly obvious, Frogwares are completely open to the fact that their title is directly inspired by Portal. They’re creating a game in the Portal sub-genre, if you like, and it seems that the marketability of titles of this kind justifies the similarities – no matter how great.
Whilst I’m not completely convinced the story is told as boldly as it sounds, the degeneration of the integrity of the facility is atmospheric and dynamic, and the game slowly changes as you leave the compound for more (literally) alien spaces. This isn’t a game of 45 levels in a test chamber, it is the adventure Frogwares have announced, and there are actually many different enemy types. You use your knowledge of the mechanics to laterally over-come them, and take back your world from the Lovecraftian spawn.
At the proposed 14.99 price tag, MagRunner looks to be a highly polished, mechanically successful first person puzzler with a great aesthetic and great puzzles. This title is created by the same minds that made Sherlock Holmes such a satisfyingly challenging title, and it seems Frogwares have taken the same initiative here.
For now, MagRunner is looking to be a single player experience, but Frogwares have “been looking into multiplayer, but this is still something we are exploring. As soon as the game is out, we will see any plans to have it [multiplayer].”
MagRunner retails around May for possibly 14.99, on 360, PS3, and PC (Steam).