Magrunner: Dark Pulse is a strange game. What starts out as a futuristic, 3D puzzle platformer with a sensible narrative quickly becomes a dark and harrowing tale surrounding the subjects of cults, human sacrifice, and H.P. Lovecraft’s twisted fictional creature Cthulhu. The result is a nonsensical storyline combining cyberpunk settings with a mysterious cosmic monster that raises more questions than it answers in its quest to be “different.” Despite its story, however, you’ll find a decent puzzle game with clever challenges.
The game begins normal enough. The introduction is narrated by Gamaji, the adoptive father of orphan protagonist Dax Ward. He explains that in the near future, the world is owned by one massive company: the Gruckezber Corporation. Using its vast resources and the public’s willingness to support the monopoly, CEO Kram Gruckezber discovers a new technology for space exploration which he named Magnetic Technology, or Magtech for short. In order to encourage citizen exploration, the corporation holds competitions in an enormous training facility floating miles above the surface of Earth. Seven competitors, dubbed Magrunners, solve complicated puzzles using Magtech in order for the chance to become the next Gruckezber-sponsored astronaut.
You, playing as Dax, are one of these Magrunners. Without spoiling too much of the story (or lack thereof), you use a special glove that can change the magnetic polarity of specific objects to either attract to or repel from surfaces or other objects in an effort to pass levels and make it one step closer to being crowned the victor. The gun you use has two triggers: one red and one green (though the colors can be changed in the settings menu if you prefer). If you need to get a static platform to cross a gap, for instance, you might shoot the wall the platform is against red and then shoot the platform itself green. Because the two objects’ colors “repel” each other, the platform will be pushed away from the wall so you can board it. To cross back, all you must do is change the color of the platform or wall to match each other so they’re “attracted,” thus moving the platform in the opposite direction. You can see the vast possibilities for gameplay with a puzzle system built this way. Things get more complicated when Dax has to shoot multiple objects in order to complete larger puzzles. Halfway through the game, you also inexplicably gain the ability to shoot a magnetic, robotic dog from your glove that latches onto most surfaces, adding in another layer of complexity, even though it doesn’t really make much sense. Barring that, the puzzle gameplay is solid and challenging, meaning fans of Portal will probably get a kick out of this title.
The problems with this concept, however, are plentiful. While the idea of using magnets to solve challenges is unique, the rest of the gameplay feels far too similar to Valve’s beloved puzzle game. Both games feature test chambers in which challenges must be overcome using a futuristic gun with two triggers solely built for puzzle-solving. Both titles have elevator loading sequences used to give the player a break, provide dialogue, and advance the story. Both titles feature the player leaving the confines of the test chambers to venture out beyond into restricted territories to uncover dark and sinister plots. Both games even have cube spawners, turrets, and disembodied narration. This is just a small sample of the two games’ similarities, and in every instance, Portal does it better. I’m not saying Magrunner shouldn’t be given a shot by puzzle-lovers, because the game is a decent one in its own right; however, considering Magrunner is this similar to a completely unique title released years ago, the likeness between the two titles is begging to be noted.
While Valve’s game prides itself on its incredible writing and hilarious voice acting, Magrunner: Dark Pulse goes the opposite direction, probably taking itself more seriously than it should, especially considering the fact that it’s a sci-fi game based around a giant space squid. The story tries to be dramatic and creepy, but scenes often fall flat due to the lackluster dialogue and voice acting. On the few occasions it gets it right, however, Magrunner is genuinely unsettling, but due to the nature of the story, I had a hard time taking the game seriously overall.
By the game’s final encounter, I couldn’t tell you what exactly was happening or why, and I doubt many could make sense of it without some backstory not found in the game. If you’re expecting any closure from the final cutscene, you’ll only walk away more confused. The story is unique, and I applaud Frogwares for attempting to take two wildly different themes and meld them into a coherent story, but I can’t help feeling like it didn’t fully pay off.
Fortunately, most gamers won’t be playing Magrunner for its narrative. The puzzle gameplay is its strong suit, and the developers know it. Expect to be genuinely challenged, often having to learn a new tactic in every room in order to advance. Just when you think you might have a hang of the tropes each puzzle requires, a new one is thrown your way, forcing you to reconsider your tactics. The puzzles late in the game almost feel too complicated to be considered fair, requiring ridiculous foresight or luck in order to beat them. The puzzles near the story’s conclusion are huge, and it’s hard to even figure out what you’re trying to do in order to move on, let alone how to do that. On top of that, a few puzzles don’t have definitive, clear-cut solutions. In order to beat a puzzle, the answer is often found through sloppy guess-and-check trials rather than that brilliant “aha!” moment puzzle-lovers live for. Fortunately, with a simple press of the F key, the magnetic fields surrounding charged objects become visible, making puzzle-solving a bit easier when things get complicated. These annoyances aside, I can’t see 3D puzzle gamers not getting a kick out of what Magrunner: Dark Pulse throws their way.
Magrunner isn’t a bad game. It’s not even mediocre. If you like 3D puzzle games, you’ll enjoy this one just as much as any other, provided you can look past its poor voice acting, silly story, and sometimes punishing puzzles. My only fear is that those that give it a go will find everything in the game has already been done better in other titles.