Magrunner: Dark Pulse is not like Portal. Sure, it may be a first-person puzzle game. It may be about working your way through test chambers. It may be about using magnets the way you use portal—oh fine, it’s like Portal: a darker, more horror-centric Portal. Unfortunately, this offering from 3 AM Games is not as clever, nor as amusing as GLaDOs and company were. Its ambition is great, but it’s often brought down by inconsistent execution, and a plot that leaves much to be desired.
In Magrunner, you’re a, well Magrunner who has been selected to test out a new facility specializing in magnetization. You are to perform numerous puzzles, over three months time, in front of millions. Before long though the facility falls apart, and a more insidious narrative arises. Borrowing from H.P. Lovecraft’s famous Cthulhu mythos, it becomes a case of survival as Cthulhu and his minions begin murdering contestants and tearing the testing chambers apart.
This does build for a briefly intriguing plot point, especially when you first hear the broken utterance of “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” (“In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”) But the moment you see the first monster eat a fellow contestant, all that excitement evaporates immediately. Where you expect suspense and fear, you get none. The transition from being a Magrunner to a confused survivor happens too quickly. The game tries valiantly to frighten you or put you on edge right away, but, as a result, does neither, and instead leaves you with a feeling of apathy.
You’ll try to escape this quasi nightmare by continuing to solve puzzles that are clearly a deep love letter to Portal. Instead of using portals though, our hero Dax – who is horribly humdrum – will use the power of magnets. Much like the Portal Gun, the Mag Gun – there has to be better names for these guns – has two different capabilities. Whereas the Portal Gun created two different ends to create a portal, the Mag Gun can make certain objects into a North and South Pole, if you will.
Contrary to reality though, opposites do not attract in Magrunner, they repel, while similarities attract. This isn’t relatively hard to grasp (and actually makes things easier to understand), but the core concept of how the puzzle room works can be. Unlike the game it’s paying homage to, it doesn’t do a very good job laying out how you should precede right off-the-bat. It takes a bit of trial-and-error at first.
The one thing that won’t take you long to figure out is that the puzzles suffer from a case of bipolarity. Some will be a cakewalk, while others will be a downright burden. Sometimes the layouts can be very clever (ingenious, even), while others will seem sloppy and uninspired, relying on previously used techniques to get by. This flip-flopping of joy and boredom will take you right out of the game, if the story already hasn’t.
It also must be noted that solving a puzzle in Magrunner doesn’t have the same sense accomplishment that completing a test chamber in Portal does. The puzzle’s goal is the same: getting out of the room. You even use cubes (a more sophisticated version of the Companion Cube) to accomplish that goal, but in Magrunner you use the cube to get to the door, not to open it, and that minor detail can create a sense of disconnect.
What isn’t disconnected in Magrunner though is its tie to the sci-fi genre. Whereas Portal was carving its own niche in the field, Magrunner embraces many sci-fi tropes and, of course, borrows from established mythology and puts its own spin on it. There’s an overbearing, creepy corporation, a mutant, and Cuthlhu itself. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to go with the familiar, but since it’s borrowing from so heavily from such a unique game, it would’ve been nice to see Magrunner attempt to create a truly individual narrative.
Where Magrunner does match up to Portal (and even surpasses it), is in the aesthetics. The game is running on Unreal Engine III, and proves how powerful the engine can still be. Though the narrative may not pull you in, the visuals can manage keep you around a little longer. It has the sleek, sterile presentation of the test chambers from Portal, and the atrophy from Portal 2 once Cthulhu starts moseying in.
3 AM has also managed to deliver on crafting a macabre soundtrack that goes hand-in-hand with the artwork in building a direr atmosphere. It can get a bit annoying when listening to the same track for an extended period of time if you’re stuck in a room trying to figure out a puzzle, but it excels more often than not.
Magrunner is not a bad game. You can see the potential, but it succumbs to the weight of its own ambition. It tries to be the next great first-person puzzle game, but surrenders something in its attempt. Magnets, puzzles, Cthulhu, it’s all there, but the enjoyment isn’t. Puzzles are marred by unstable level design, and a cool story idea falls on its face before it can even get started. 3 AM should be applauded for being the first to attempt a Portal replica, but sadly, it falls the way most games of flattery do: close, but no cigar.
(Images from official Magrunner site.)