Magrunner: Dark Pulse was described to me as Portal with horror. The ads call it technology meets Cthulhu and look like a mix of first and third person action. This is most definitely first person, and while it’s similar to Portal in that there are puzzles and obstacles to get around, the mechanics in how you do this are very, very different. While Portal is very much tongue-in-cheek humor mixed in with a silent protagonist and minimal cast, Magrunner takes a horror route instead with a much bigger cast of characters to flesh things out a bit more. While the overall experience is different, the gameplay ends up feeling very similar to Portal and that’s not a bad thing. Let’s take a look.
Set in 2050, Magrunner takes place at a high-tech training facility developed by Gruckezber Corporation’s Magtech. Gruckezber isn’t thrilled with how slowly mankind has been headed out into space and has decided to develop his own space exploration using his Magtech. After successfully creating and bulding upon his success with LifeNET, something eerily similar to Facebook and Siri now, and has invited 7 of the best and brightest minds to his new facility to train with Magtech, including the player’s character, Dax. Dax’s mentor and only family is a multi-armed mutant named Gamaji who raised Dax after his parents death and taught him as much as he could about technology. He started going above and beyond what Gamaji could do, even going so far as to develop and build his own Magtech glove.
Because Dax was raised and taught by a mutant he’s considered the underdog of the candidates for entry into the space program. This is pretty evident when you see an interview between the reporter covering the event, Cassandra, and the technician responsible for running the show, Xander. You end up getting this from both of them later on in the game as well and Dax takes exception but Gamaji tells him to ignore it. Things are going well and Dax is progressing through the trials faster than any of the other candidates when power starts fluctuating and strange sounds start coming from the other areas. It all comes to a head though when Dax enters a room to find one of the other candidates being eaten by some kind of monster who attacks him, making him black out. When he comes to, it’s gone along with the prospect except for the blood stains.
Dax tries to report the problem to Xander who denies there is a problem except that they’re handling it until Dax is forced to exit one of the testing rooms through a hole in the wall and finds himself in a much older training facility with similar Magtech throughout, just with strange cultist markings. Gamaji tried to help Dax the best he can but it comes out that Dax’s parents were cultists and Gamaji thinks that the facility is related in some way, including the monsters. The plot thickens as Dax tries to make his way out and the full brunt of the horror of the situation finally comes to bear. It’s an interesting and bleak story told through holo images on you magtech glove, trips in elevators and several cutscene sequences in both first and third-person. There are definite H.P. Lovecraft influences throughout which make the increasing bleakness of the levels all the more interesting.
Visually it starts off very clean and sterile and I was worried this was how the whole game was going to be as it’s a little hard to look at first. When things go to hell though, the visual palette gets more interesting and things start to look grittier and far from as neon and clean as they start out. The sharp contrast between the environments and the increasingly dark and broken look to the levels really highlights the plunge into hell the player takes. There were a few visuals that didn’t quite work, like looking up from the low point of what would have been a really long fall down, but looking down worked ok from the area before it. The elements you need to solve the puzzles and get around the rooms become a bit harder to see and differentiate the deeper you get into the game before things open up a bit again. The grime can almost get in the way sometimes but it adds to the atmosphere of those areas so much it’s not something you can hold against the designers.
The voice actors do a great job selling their parts. Xander is particularly smarmy and jerk-like while Gamaji is sympathetic and clever and it comes across in their voices. I’d say that Dax’s voice actor is good in cutscenes and dialogue, but doesn’t quite match up when you’re moving around a level and he grunts on impacts. It doesn’t sound the same at all. The creature sounds are great and really add to the tension, especially when you can’t see them but know they’re there and moving around. The music is used to the same effect as the creature sounds and gets progressively more ominous as you play. Overall the visuals mixed with the audio really sell the experience as more than what it is and I loved it.
I decided not to use a keyboard and mouse for the game, going with a 360 controller on my PC mainly because controller support was listed and I’m liking using my controller more than my keyboard for anything other than MMOs. The controls are pretty standard FPS fare. There’s no crouch or sprint option, but you get a jump, a zoom, move around with left analog, look with right, and then you fire with left and right triggers your alternating beams of magnetic energy to start the fields on objects. The controls work really well and were responsive. My only real frustration came with solving the puzzles and getting those magnetic fields to interact.
Which brings me to gameplay. The game is designed around certain objects, like platforms, cubes, and launching platforms, begin able to hold and maintain a magnetic field. The field can be spherical or cylindrical and goes with the idea that magnets attract and repel. The more magnetic fields of the same type you have together the stronger the field. So there are platforms stuck on a line that move based on the field being generated so you have control over the moving platforms. There are cubes that can hold fields and will attach to platforms and work like launchers, carrying Dax across a room when launched or up to another section depending on what you’re firing the cube from. There are also explosive cubes that can be used to break into sections to get needed cubes or just into another area. Magnetic fields will work through walls so you can use them to get to needed objects or to get a platform where you need it that way as well. Mirrors will let you hit objects that you can’t see by reflecting the beam.
There is a lot here that owes its design to Portal and Portal 2 as far as solving the puzzles. While it’s less gravity based as well as being able to open a portal to drop different places or objects where you want them, the magnetic fields idea borrows a bit from the level design and ideas from Portal and then takes them where you’d inevitably expect with the magnets and the way the puzzles work getting more complex as you go. There are containers, for example, where each side acts like a magnet, forcing the player to spread it open and use it like a six sided platform. Magnets are a bit pickier though than portals and usually won’t go after each other or be repelled unless they’re almost entirely in the other’s magnetic field and it can lead to interesting result when the cubes bounce around within the field as a platform floats along. This makes the puzzles a bit more challenging than the ones from Portal when you were propelling yourself as you have to wrangle other things within fields that don’t always behave the way you’d think they would. Also the puzzles and challenges aren’t always as easy to decipher as you might think especially as you walk into some of the later rooms or areas and there might just be two of those giant room cubes and platforms way above and nothing else. There’s more to it of course and you have to dig a little to find that piece that’ll get you upstairs or to the exit, but it’s not always something you can see right away.
As you play the levels you’re on and complete show up as a list of available rooms you can jump into, meaning you can replay your favorites at any time. There are steam achievements that are tied to getting through levels in different ways on top of simply completing the game so getting those will take more than one run through I can almost guarantee. The story is interesting enough, but like most games like this, unless you really love the story or the puzzle challenges, once you’ve beaten it you may not come back to it right away or keep playing it. So your replay mileage will vary quite a bit.
For $20 you’re getting about three to six hours of gameplay depending on how fast you progress through the roughly forty areas of puzzles. Your replay value will vary as I said. The game does offer a nice progression of difficulty as you go and the puzzles get more complex. The only thing that can really get frustrating is the almost random behavior of some of the magnets when you really need them to behave the way you expect. Overall it’s a decent price for a good chunk of game and it’s a lot of fun on top of being a creepy Lovecraftian experience. I do feel this game owes a lot to Portal in the way that it’s designed but at the same time it takes that kind of first-person puzzle mechanic and completely changes how we go about playing that same type of game and giving us some new tools to play with and a whole different tone by going from Sci-Comedy to Sci-Horror. While we have seen games of this type before this is the first time I’ve played anything like this and it is a blast even when you’re frustrated with your magnet aligning skills. It is addictive even while being short. I played for several hours both times I sat down before I beat the game and only quit because of other things going on. It’s an interesting mix pitting future tech against Cthulhu and has a very cyberpunk feel to it that way to go with the horror that really sucks you in.
It is a fairly inexpensive title but looks more like bigger budget than the price would suggest. I keep comparing to another certain puzzle game, and while the initial levels feel a little sparse in comparison, the details and level design when things start falling apart bring it more in line with that expectation. If you’re looking for a first-person shooter more along the lines of Portal that requires some thinking to play through and not just mindlessly firing, for the price you can’t go wrong. I didn’t have many issues playing or running it although my version was lacking a little bit on the PC twinking end of things. I’m running on the press version. The one issue I did have was a hard loading screen. Whenever you open a door into another area or head into an elevator or leave it there’s a loading screen that basically freezes your screen while it loads and the jumps you ahead a little bit from where you were. The same happens with cutscenes. While not a deal-breaker, it is jarring and smoother transitions would have been welcome and would have made the game play a bit smoother. Overall though there’s little to complain about as it is a well put together title.
Short Attention Span Summary
Magrunner: Dark Pulse is an in-depth first person puzzle game much like Portal, but where Portal went for a more sci-fi and comedy approach, Magrunner takes that sci-fi ctaspect and instead blends it with old school horror and Cthulhu like monsters leaving the player to use the puzzles to their advantage along with exploding containers and a weapon that simply controls magnets and changes certain objects magnetic polarity. Magrunner isn’t necessarily as straight-forward in what it’ll take to solve a puzzle as Portal and Portal 2 were and while the magnetic fields can be a little unwieldy at times the end result is just as much fun in a very different way. While lacking multiplayer the game does a great job of supplying enough levels and story to more than justify the cost. If you liked Portal and its sequel for the puzzles and gameplay you’ll find a lot of familiar ground here that’s a blast to tread through. Magrunner is a much darker game though after the initial levels with a hint of Silent Hill and Fatal Frame as you’re left with more of your wits to take on the bad guys than any real weapons.