Magrunner: Dark Pulse’s direct point of comparison is Portal. In fact, those games share so much DNA you could call them cousins. Anyone who has spent time with Portal will immediately recognize what Magrunner: Dark Pulse is going for. You’re trapped in a facility with a strange and magical non-lethal gun whose functions you must learn on the fly to have any hope of escape. However, instead of a hilariously insane AI messing with you, in Magrunner: Dark Pulse, it’s pretend Facebook. Yep, Facebook. You see, the Grukezber (not Zuckerberg, def) corporation, creators of LifeNet – aka the most thinly veiled riff on Facebook outside of a GTA title – wants to send people into space so it gathers seven talented individuals together for a series of tests to determine who gets to go. You are Dax, the apparent outsider of the group because reasons. But where the others have money and training on their side (oh, hello, I didn’t see you there Hunger Games), you have brains, a robo-dog, and your mutant best-pal Gamaji. Gamaji has six arms and is lead guitarist for his band the Gamaji Mutant Experience (citation needed). There are other characters also, like Cassandra the news reporter and Xander, the Zuckerberg Grukezber lead engineer, but the truth is that you probably won’t remember them after they’re introduced and they don’t play much of role in the events of the game beyond simply being the names of the characters who do the things that set the events of the game’s plot into motion and may or may not need be overcome for its conclusion.
So, we’ve got Portal, Facebook, space travel, and something else I can’t remember……what was it again? Oh that’s right, it was C’thulu! Also wrapped up in the game’s convoluted story is a mysterious cult that worships the Space God of the Internet himself, C’thulu, and it seems like they want to unleash him on the world because it’s Monday and Monday’s suck (totes reasonable).
The truth is that Magrunner: Dark Pulse is kind of a mess from a story standpoint. It’s all just a contrived goof designed to fit in as much nonsense as possible. Mutants? Sure. Facebook is an evil corporation? Of course it is. C’thulu? Hell yes! There are literally no sane reasons C’thulu shouldn’t be in it. Story is where Magrunner: Dark Pulse attempts to set itself apart from Portal. They get it wrong, however. The story in Portal worked because it added to the gameplay and provided context to what was really just a series of sterile mental and hand/eye agility tests The story in Magrunner: Dark Pulse tries to be the backbone of the experience – like the game is more concerned with telling the story of Dax the magrunner and the time he headed off an invasion by C’thulu than simply being a fundamentally solid series of gameplay challenges.
That’s not to say that Magrunner: Dark Pulse isn’t mostly fundamentally solid, because it is. But only mostly. Magnetism stands in for one-way portals in Magrunner: Dark Pulse and it’s a solid concept for a puzzle game; however, they completely botched one simple aspect of the magnetism-based gameplay: the basic rules of magnetism. We all learn at an early age that opposite charges attract and identical charges repel. Everyone, except for maybe Insane Clown Posse, knows this, but for some strange reason Frogwares flipped it. In Magrunner: Dark Pulse, opposite charges (represented by the colors red and green) repel each other while identical charges attract. It is, admittedly, a relatively minor problem because the game makes it clear from the beginning that its primary mechanic works that way. However, it does make the game less intuitive and, in my estimation, about 5% to 10% more mentally taxing than it needs to be.
Outside of that one mystifying design decision, 2/3rds of Magrunner: Dark Pulse is pretty well put-together. The game is broken up into three parts and the difficulty of each part increases at a fair rate as new puzzles and ways to solve them are introduced. The solutions are never unfair or particularly obtuse – so important in a puzzle game. Part three introduces murderous fish-men however, and that’s when things get a bit shambolic. These pugilistic fish-men are utterly laughable both in appearance and action as they slowly ambulate after you intent on punching you to death. That’s right; these foot soldiers of C’thulu – creatures whose mere proximity drive men mad – attack with lazy roundhouse punches. It’s exactly as stupid as it sounds. Unfortunately, they also present an issue for the game’s engine in that killing them, while simple in principle, is awkward in practice. In a game where monsters can move anywhere, but lethal projectiles can only travel along one set trajectory, you sort of need a way to reliably lure enemies into said trajectory and Magrunner: Dark Pulse did not provide for such reliability. That was by far the game’s largest misstep and it nearly ruins the last third of the game which, for spoilery reasons, should be the best part.
Independent of those missteps, Magrunner: Dark Pule is largely acceptable from a technical standpoint. Graphically, it’s very average. Eight years ago, it might have looked good but the Unreal Engine is really starting to show its age these days. Meanwhile the art design does a good job selling the setting. It starts off clean and antiseptic – just like Portal – but quickly descends into the standard “ruined underground lab” setting that’s been done to death at this point by so many games. At least Portal’s ruined underground lab was full of hidden oddities. In Magrunner: Dark Pulse you get no such hidden oddities. Oh there are oddities, like the same drawing of C’thulu accompanied by cryptic messages in every other room and numerous petrified monsters, but once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. And what little mystery is there gets dispelled about as quickly as it’s set up.
Finally, the game’s audio leaves nothing to really complain about. The music is good and the voice acting is decent; however, since there’s not that much of it, maybe it just didn’t give me a chance to get sick of it.
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