By: Casey Curran
Magrunner: Dark Pulse is a game that really wants to be Portal. A minute could not literally pass without something in the game reminding me of Valve’s quirky puzzler, from the environmental design to the very structure of the game. In fact, I would not be surprised if there was a lawyer present at some point telling the developers the bare minimum they needed to change to avoid a lawsuit. The question is: does Magrunner succeed as well as Portal? Not quite, but it puts in a very respectable effort.
Magrunner’s controls will feel instantly familiar to many. L2 and R2 will fire green and red blasts respectively, which magnetize certain objects in the environment similar to Portal’s blue and orange portals. Square is then used to pick up objects while X is used to jump. The L1 and R1 buttons, meanwhile, both zoom in by holding them. Zooming in this way does not fit as well for this style of game as pressing them to toggle the zoom, however, which makes zooming in feel more awkward than it should.
Aiming and moving both feel too stiff, which makes experimenting and actually solving the puzzles less fluid than it is in Portal. This stiffness removes much of the fun from the test chambers, which ultimately make it more about the satisfaction of completing a room.
Magrunner initially goes for a very simple look, which ultimately works against it. The simplicity in the colors gives the world a very static and lifeless feel to it without any art direction or tone in the story to make this work. Later stages do shake things up a little with a lot more variety, and they have a decent look to them, but it’s not enough to make up for the bland lifelessness of the early stages.
Music is basically nonexistent while the sound effects have a nice sci-fi feel to them. Dialogue, meanwhile, is a lot less witty and interesting than the game thinks it is. Most conversations are needlessly long information dumps, which ultimately served to make me disinterested in the story and just want to play the game instead. Those that take place during puzzles are obviously setting up for comedic moments, yet I laughed only at two of the game’s jokes.
At its most basic, Magrunner is actually a pretty damn good puzzler. The test chambers had some really stumping puzzles with clever solutions based on a very interesting central mechanic. Each chamber is based on magnetizing platforms, lasers, and boxes, where a red one will attract other red ones in its proximity while repelling green ones and vice versa. Once I grasped this mechanic, I really loved it, and during the moments where it takes full advantage it is a blast with a satisfying aftertaste.
Unfortunately, there is a lot getting in the way of enjoying these moments. The aforementioned controls make the game very tedious in long playthroughs, meaning I had to limit it to short bursts if I really wanted to enjoy myself. The game also does a poor job explaining its mechanics to the player, which left me stumped on more than a few occasions; not because of clever puzzle design, but because I was unaware of a mechanic that played a key role in its solution.
Magrunner also interrupts its gameplay far too frequently with a return to the opening room where you talk to some character via hologram. And every time this happens you have to wait for the room to load and then the next test chamber to load. To make matters worse, the story told with these bits is incredibly bland and uninteresting. I could not remember about it anything other than a powerful corporation was behind everything.
Magrunner: Dark Pulse is a game that has one fantastic idea offset by some terrible ones. Stiff controls, bland art direction, and an annoyingly intrusive and boring story turn what could have been an excellent puzzler into a game I have a much harder time recommending. It may be worth a try if you see it on sale or think you can put up with its faults. Otherwise, it might be best to wait to turn to either Zelda game for puzzling fun this fall.