In 2007, Portal shocked the gaming world and solidified itself within nerd popular culture. No one could predict the level of success this quirky, first-person puzzle game would reach, especially when packaged with two heavily hyped projects -- Half Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2. Nonetheless, Portal was the surprise hit out of The Orange Box. GLaDOS, the game’s antagonistic narrator, became a gaming icon, boxes across the world began to sport hearts on their surfaces, and cakes would never be looked at the same way again.
Since Portal’s success, many games have come along that bear a striking similarity to Valve’s surprise hit. Games like Q.U.B.E. and Antichamber, for example, developed their own image of a first-person puzzle game. Even Kim Swift, one of the developers on the DigiPen project Narbacular Drop that lead to the development of Portal, developed a new take on the genre with Quantum Conundrum. It would be wrong to say that any one of these games was trying to capitalize on the success of Portal, but the trend of first-person puzzle games is undeniable.
Magrunner: Dark Pulse is one of those games, and the similarities to Portal are eerie. As Dax Ward, Magrunner-in-training, you are put through a series of magnetism puzzles to determine if you are capable of becoming a full-on Magrunner. These trials bear striking resemblance to Portal test chambers, straight down to taking elevators between puzzles and disarming sentry guns to progress.
The puzzles are generally clever and rewarding, but occasional design hiccups hold it back. Through use of an experimental device on his arm, Dax is capable of changing the magnetic polarity of objects by zapping them. Curiously, objects of like polarity attract one another while objects of reverse polarity repel, which is the opposite of how real-world polarity works. Additionally, different objects have different polarity fields. A box, for example, only has a small sphere of influence while a wall panel may affect objects across the entire room. Solving puzzles in Magrunner means mastering the effects of polarity and each object’s field of influence.
Unfortunately, the level design does not always assist the player as much as it ought to. Becoming stuck in Magrunner typically means there is an object or interaction in the environment that has not been detailed to you. During the review, I found myself stuck on many puzzles only to find the solution to be a simple panel I did not know I could interact with or a box hidden out of view. When Magrunner’s puzzle design clicks, it is a rewarding experience on the level of all other puzzlers in this genre. Far too often, though, cumbersome design decisions get in the way of that joy.
Similarly, combat plays a light but intrusive role throughout the title. Dax is tasked with taking out sentries in the occasional late-game test chamber and combating horrific monsters near the title’s closing sequences. Each time, the only method of destruction available is an explosive box. Combat winds up being a frustrating puzzle to determine how to position these enemies to best be hit by dangerous boxes. Dax doesn’t have a lot of health either, so fighting off threats becomes an exercise in trial and error. If you are running away from an abomination, you don’t have enough time to plan your next move before the beast consumes you and you’re sent to the last checkpoint. All of the combat in Magrunner feels forced and unnecessary.
Much like Portal, once the player has mastered the puzzle mechanics the story dictates an escape from the testing facility. Although it might seem like another borrowed trope, escaping the test rooms is where Magrunner starts to come into its own. As you reveal the sinister plot behind the tests, the game’s tone shifts dramatically. The reflective and futuristic atmosphere of the test chambers makes way for dark, Lovecraftian design. As you progress, the two environment styles mix. At first, there may only be a hint of the horror theme with scribbles on the walls and broken up audio. Over time, though, the Cthulhu-inspired designs feel as though they consume the chambers until you are left with dreary caves and earth structures. The horror vibe created by this shift is what leads to the game’s most memorable moments.
Not just design moments, either. The best gameplay moments in Magrunner are a direct result of the tone. You occasionally find yourself traversing the horror environment in low light with little guidance. The only way to progress is by using polarity tricks to keep platorms slowly advancing on narrow rails. Not knowing what awaits around the corner is the best tension this game can provide, and it happens far too little. The limited movement, monster design, and use of darkness near the end create scenarios that are hard to forget.
This horror vibe is a bit hindered, however, by the game’s actual narrative. Magrunner: Dark Pulse tells a tale of a genius soon-to-be Magrunner slowly falling into the pits of insanity due to his family history with Lovecraftian cults. The story, however, is so basic and filled with bland characters that it’s difficult to care for Dax’s plight. Which is a shame, because there are some incredibly tense and emotional moments here; they just don’t happen during cutscenes or voiceovers. It feels Magrunner would have benefited from less exposition and more gameplay sequences, but there’s no way to know for sure. The story as it stands, however, is unremarkable and intrudes on most of what makes this game enjoyable.
Magrunner: Dark Pulse has moments of brilliance spread across an otherwise generic experience. For every tense scene in the bowels of the testing facility, there’s a puzzle whose simple solution eludes you due to poor design. There is a lot to love in this first-person puzzler, and it manages to find its own identity in a genre that’s so heavily inspired by its greatest success story. At its best, though, Magrunner: Dark Pulse is only a competent puzzler with handful of great, creepy moments.