Games development pretty much depends on derivation and iteration to survive. You can count the number of annual titles with enough unique parts to be considered ‘original’ on one, fairly mangled, hand. Genuine innovation is tough and people often gravitate towards what they know, which is why Tolkien-styled fantasy MMOs are proliferating faster than an evangelist in the Quiverfull movement.
Without Grand Theft Auto we wouldn’t have had Sleeping Dogs. Contemporary 4x space sims are pretty much all indebted to Master of Orion II in one way or another. And, most relevant to this review, without Portal there would absolutely not have been a Magrunner: Dark Pulse.
You are Dax Ward, would-be Magrunner, boy genius and orphan. Along with six other candidates, you’ll be put through a series of scientific testing chambers in order to see who’s cut out to join the Gruckezber Magtech space expedition. Each of these tests will utilise the mag-glove apparatus, a device which can dispense two, different coloured mag-charges to manipulate the environment of platforms, cubes and lifts in order to clear a path to the room’s exit.
Yes, it’s very Portal indeed. Right down to the turrets, scrawled graffiti on the lab walls and the fact that everything quickly begins to seem more than a little weird. As the introduction should have made clear, this sort of cribbing from previous titles is a regular, even necessary, occurrence. But Magrunner certainly pushes its luck.
The basis for the game’s puzzles is the attraction and repulsion of objects. Just to frustrate any physicists who might be playing, the ‘magnetic’ forces in this game actually function in reverse; like colours attract, and opposites repel. That’s a little bizarre at first, but as the game progresses and the mag-fields begin to overlap and interact with ever-increasing frequency, the visual simplicity of “like attracts like” is vindicated.
Dax’s mag-glove defaults to a red/green colour combo, but it’s also possible to switch (as I did) to a red/blue option. My decision was just based on preference, but I’d imagine the additional choice is invaluable for anyone who is red/green colour-blind. Those who might suffer from motion sickness are well catered for too, in the form of a reasonable Field of View slider.
The puzzles wander through the inevitable introductory levels (can you walk around and point your mag-glove at things? congratulations, you’re still in the running for our intergalactic space program!,) but gradually morph into fiendish, multi-stage trials. By that point you’ll have learned how to coax and cajole all manner of platforms, launch-pads, cubes and super boring turrets into doing your pseudo-magnetic bidding.
Magrunner’s central premise is a simple one, but it’s quick to introduce new tricks and foibles. Certain parts of the environment may be positioned behind mag-proof glass, or only visible when looking into a mirrored surface. Part-way through the game, a whole new set of possibilities are opened up when your glove is upgraded with the power to place a lone mag-field on almost any surface of your choosing.
The versatility of this ability sometimes offers a freedom that the puzzle structure struggles to contain. In Portal (to choose another first-person puzzler entirely at random,) rooms were always constructed with clarity. You knew what was expected of you and whether your schemes were along the right lines. In Magrunner, it’s not always so clear whether you’re pursuing a sensible theory or just wasting your time. Once you’re able to fire off an individual mag-field to a point of your choice, it’s no longer possible to rely on a logical process of elimination to solve a room. Your interactive options expand from the limited to the boundless.
This does have its satisfactions too. Since trial and error is ruled out, you really do earn the solutions on later levels. With more scope for fiddling and finessing platforms into place, there’s also an occasional feeling (whether truly justified or not) of having bested the puzzle by bodging your way through and negating the official method.
Rather less rewarding are the rooms in which Magrunner displays its mischievous streak. Every now and again, the designers have a tendency to just hide a crucial cube (sometimes forcing some backtracking) or put a vital mag-beam on an innocently rotating bit of background scenery. Throwing in a few tests of observation alongside the mental agility adds variety, but tends to come off as a bit of a cheap trick.
Oh yes, and Cthulhu shows up. Surprise!
Except it’s not a surprise, really. The Lovecraftian angle is played up in every trailer, on every digital store page and throughout all the bits and pieces of marketing blurb. So it’s perhaps a bit less alarming than it might have been to stumble across a fellow contestant being munched on by a mutant fish creature from the eldritch abyss. I’m sure marketing (let alone initial crowdfunding) of the game made this impossible, but I dearly wish the Cthulhu aspect had been kept secret for added impact.
Anyway, it’s there, and it effectively stands in for Portal’s comedy routines. Where Valve used humour to string their rooms together, Magrunner opts for dank passageways and comms-chat about The Old Ones. The horror aspect never approaches the levels of something like Amnesia, but there are a couple of effective segments that make use of limited light sources and eerie growling noises. Part of the problem is the creatures themselves, who get revealed too early to remain a creepy, unknown threat and have a similar appearance to Dr Who’s rubber-faced Sea Devils.
As events progress Dax has to survive some chase encounters with a different breed of monster. These run a fine line between excitement and frustration. Being forced into rapid-fire mag-glove use is an admirable test of another skill set, but short, twitch-shooter interludes seem slightly out of place in an otherwise moderately-paced game.
While the story is plainly just there as a basic framework on which to hang the game’s puzzle sets and various environments, it’s mostly well voiced and remains sturdy. Dax’s adoptive father Gamaji is the title’s strongest character, both in voice work and the nods towards background societal issues that his mutant form allows. The interaction between Gamaji and Dax doesn’t ever develop into a significant emotional hook, but it’s the only area that at least threatens to do so.
Magrunner borrows from both of Valve’s Portal titles, but doesn’t quite hit the puzzle design heights of the first, and lacks the mechanical variance to justify having a length akin to the second. It’s more than just a knock-off though, thanks to the departure in tone and a consistency to its mag-field challenges. The horror angle doesn’t quite work, leaving the title oscillating between actual chills and campy b-movie antics, but the conceit of the mag-glove device keeps most of Magrunner’s test chambers, industrial basements and cosmic arenas engaging.