Publishers: Focus Home Interactive
First-person puzzle games are a genre, Valve hardly holds a monopoly on them, but it's rather the fact that Portal has so come to define that genre that every other game fitting the bill that comes along along is held up against the example set by Chell and GLaDOS. Given that information,, it's perhaps not terribly surprising when games fall short of that lofty target. Kim Swift struggled to follow up on her Aperture-fuelled success with the decidedly mixed bag that was Quantum Conundrum, but games such as the non-Euclidean, mind-bending indie hit Antichamber have shown that there's room for more excellence in the genre.
Enter Magrunner: Dark Pulse, then -- a game from Frogwares' 3AM studio that mashes first-person puzzle-platforming with Cthulhu of all things. Portal meets R'lyeh, with magnets: it's a pitch that warrants inspection if only to find out exactly what such a creative smoothie might entail.
As it turns out, there's a lot of Portal in here, and not just because of the relatively unexplored genre in which this game sits. Sadly, though, 3AM haven't picked up on the best bits, such as finding thing out for yourself. Instead of situating us in the moment from the very beginning as Portal does with the test chamber being destroyed and the-player-as-Chell being rudely awakened, here in Magrunner we get a lengthy cutscene, introducing the player character as Dax C. Ward, a young white fellow with a shaved head and a little stubble who basically looked like Cole from Infamous 2 sporting a padded gilet. Dax has won the chance to fight for a place on a space exploration programme by taking part in a televised competition. All he has to do is jump into a testing centre, make his way through a bunch of puzzle-platforming levels, and learn to use a gun with two opposing functions. Oh, and discover the shady things happening behind the brightly coloured, immaculately polished testing chambers' wall panels.
Yeah, so that sounds familiar.
But instead of bending the laws of time and space -- that comes later with the arrival of the tentacley-bearded one -- Dax's MagGun works by bestowing magnetic charges upon certain items, usually cubes. It's a very simple premise: objects and platforms imbued with the same colour charge attract, and opposites repel, which seems a little backwards given that actual magnets work the other way around. Nonetheless, green objects will be inexorably drawn together, but they'll fling themselves away from red objects with some vigour.
The first part of the game is good clean puzzling fun, if a little derivative. There are launch pads and moving platforms, and cubes to be flung across large gaps to sit on switches and it's all very clean and polished and I wish I was playing Portal. The difficulty curve is relatively smooth, and you have a trainer pop up on screen to help you out from time to time. He's a mutant named Gamaji and he's a social outcast and he knows secrets about your parents and he'll dump irritating, completely superfluous chunks of exposition on you from time to time. The background story is a little clunky, but things get better the deeper you go into MagTech, and when you see one off your other competitors violently devoured before your very eyes by a towering fish-monster, you begin to realise that MagTech isn't all that its cracked up to be.
The central mechanics are actually fairly solid, and pressing the 'F' key brings up a crackling array of magnetic visual feedback that lets you know see a glance the currently charged objects and their magnetic fields. But whereas Portal provided those rather nifty charts at the start of levels that would give you quick visual indicators of the dangers and possibilities to be found in a test chamber, there's precious little player guidance here. While that does allow for experimentation (though such charts might not have necessarily precluded it), it can lead to frustration, particularly as the puzzles become more and more complex. Gamaji,as it turns out, really isn't all that useful after all.
The game shifts when the power goes out and Old Ones start to appear (we'll leave you to find out why that happens for yourselves), and the game takes on a significantly darker tone than before. There's a pervasive tension to everything that creeps in slowly -- well paced atmospheric tension being important when puzzles can take an age to complete -- and the Lovecraftian apocalypse lends itself nicely to a little bit of horror and a certain amount of urgency. Platforms move a little faster, chains dangle from walls, grotesque noises rumble in the bowels of MagTech.
Sadly, though, the tone is shattered by some rather mediocre designs of Lovecraft's horrific apparitions, and the game's increasing reliance on complexity over creativity. Instead of opening things out and allowing for broader player experimentation, the game narrows even as the game's visible walls are blown way. Instead of providing more tightly, intricately designed levels to force us to think our way around using the simple but versatile tools, the game shifts more towards layer upon layer of sprawling, but rather linear, puzzles we've already seen (bad) and lots of precise first-person platforming (worse). 3AM add in a host of new features such as rails that you have to charge whilst in motion or a magnetic dog that you can fire at surfaces and imbue with its own charge, but these really only usually result in extra levels of fiddly frustration, and there comes a point when you're banging your head against the wall rather than actually experimenting and having any fun.
It's a shame, really, because there's enough here to warrant second game. There are times when the puzzles are absolutely spot on, finding that delightful balance between being satisfyingly tricky and yet yielding up a eureka moment without too much frustration. There are times, too, when the atmosphere in the second half of the game absolutely nails the creepy horror Cthuluh is supposed to present. But sadly there are also too many moments when both fall flat, in a game that tries to tread a little too closely in Valve's footsteps.
- MagGun is an interesting, well-worked device
- Some of the puzzles come together really nicely indeed
- Some satisfyingly creepy moments when Cthuhu shows up
- Good production values and voice work
- Some horrible difficulty spikes
- Story is poorly handled
- Frustrating platforming elements
- Trial and error gameplay towards the end ruins atmosphere
The Short Version: There promise here, some great puzzle sections, and some suitably chilling moments when Chulhu shows up. But Magrunner is a game that squanders its best moments too frequently, trading fun for frustration more often than not, and ultimately proving unable to live up to the high bar that it sets for itself.