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.