Magrunner: Dark Pulse

Review

posted 8/20/2013 by Charles Husemann
other articles by Charles Husemann
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It would be easy to dismiss Magrunner as a Portal clone as the two games are eerily similar. Both games feature a protagonist undergoing some form of trial in a test environment, both feature a weapon with two modes, and both follow roughly the same thematic progression. However, once you get past those similarities, there’s an entirely different game that’s worth your time and money.

Magrunner takes place in 2050 and mankind has become linked together via lifeNET, a super social network that connects everyone together. Gruckezber, the creator of lifeNET, has also created Mag, a new energy that will take mankind to the stars. To unveil it, he has a big contest where people will compete for spots in the deep space exploration project. In the game you play Dax Ward, one of those competing in Gruckezber’s competition. LifeNET is a thinly veiled reference to Facebook (Gruckezber is an anagram of Zuckerberg) and there are even some nods to The Hunger Games tucked in via how the competition is handled by the media.  

The real story though is that the designer of the maze, Xander, is a cultist who has brought these candidates together to summon Cthulhu from the beyond. I do wish this had been more of a secret but this information was broadcast in the game’s marketing and is even provided as part of the main menu of the game.


What is different about Magrunner is that the game actually creates some moments of dread and horror throughout the experience without resorting to jump scares or monster closets. Magrunner has some genuinely creepy moments and helps create tension as there are other things in the world that will harm you other than the puzzles. In Portal, it’s really you versus GlaDOS, but GlaDOS’s only weapons are the puzzles, whereas Magrunner actually has things crawling around some of the levels that can cause you harm. It’s subtle but it really does add something to the game.

Speaking of the puzzles, the folks at Frogwares have come up with a cool core mechanic. Magnets might not seem like a cool mechanic (and might confuse any Juggalos in the audience), but they are well implemented. Dax can use his mag gun to change the polarity of certain objects in the game between three states: neutral, positive, or negative. Like traditional magnets, objects of the same state/polarity repel each other, while objects of different polarity attract each other.  

This allows you to manipulate objects in the environment by positioning them next to each other and then flipping the switch. For example, if you want to get to a platform that you can’t jump up to, you would grab a conveniently placed block, place it on top of the conveniently placed charging space, charge the space with one polarity, hop on the block, and then switch the block to the opposite, and up you go. You can also charge platforms and all kinds of switches and mechanisms to solve the puzzles in the game.


While this alone would be enough for most people, the folks at Frogwares added another wrinkle in that having several items of the same polarity near each other will increase the strength of the magnetic field.  

The puzzles, for the most part, are well thought out and well executed. There were a few puzzles where I had to walk away for a bit or had to look for hints online but the game will absolutely scratch the same itch as other action puzzle games on the market.  

The game does have a few glaring flaws, though. A sprint button would have gone miles to make the game move a lot faster, especially when you are constantly trying and retrying some of the more difficult puzzles. You also spend a lot of time in elevators moving between levels, to the point where I started having Mass Effect flashbacks. The plot moves forward through some of these sequences, but the amount of time you spend moving through the maze via elevator gets annoying by the time you're halfway through the game.  


The other big issue is that, in the second half of the game, you are given the ability to create your own magnetic points, which can quickly lead you into overthinking how to solve some of the puzzles. I’m not sure if this is a game design issue or a Problem-Exists-Between-Chair-and-Keyboard issue, but some of the more frustrating puzzles had simpler solutions than they appeared to have.  

These complaints aside, Magrunner is a fun and challenging game that is worth your attention. The fact that the game is $20 makes this even more of a steal.
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