Review: Magrunner: Dark Pulse

MagrunnerDarkPulse

Magnets can be fun. Two similar sized magnets given to a child can be a small distraction as they realize that one end will stick to another and the other sides just will not go together (if they are sufficiently charged). If you have an old CRT monitor or television you can use a magnet to make everyone on CNN look like a martian and simultaneously void your warranty. They are a lot more educational and entertaining than anything with an electric charge because it is possible to screw around with them to see evidence of a force invisible to the naked eye without getting shocked. Magrunner: Dark Pulse takes all the fun of magnets and for no apparent reason adds in some Lovecraftian-style mythos to come up with a pretty good puzzle game.

Players will assume the role of Dax Ward, a young man who has been chosen with six other people to be a Magrunner, a participant in the MagTech Corporation’s televised training program. Shortly after the program begins, things will turn sideways as the MagTech facility is rocked with explosions, strange creatures appear and screams pour over the intercoms. Trying to make his way to safety, Dax will go from room to room while chatting with various talking heads about how some cultists are using future-Facebook–called LifeNet–magic, and of course magnets to somehow bring about an age of darkness where the great Cthulhu will reign supreme over the spheres for a billion eons as all of mankind drowns in blood and knows only fear (presumably because they do not have magnets). The injection of otherworldly horror into the game is a sideshow at best as none of the horrific action is depicted. It is only described by people that appear, in a neat graphical effect, as holographic images above Dax’s trusty MagTech glove. The dimensional incursion could have just as easily been a terrorist attack but for the few freaky alien statues that appear in some of the levels. Towards the very end of the game things are more cohesive, but for most of the game the mythos elements are pointless.

As suggested in the title, the primary mechanic has to do with magnets. Like a certain handheld device from Aperture Science, Dax has a special glove that allows him to charge particular objects with powerful positive and negative magnetic charges–or what one assumes is a positive or negative charge since it is impossible to tell for sure as everything is color coded, not marked like a physics problem with “+” and “-” symbols. A charged object will glow with an aura of its charge’s color unless players hit the Y–or realism–button and make all of the magnetic fields invisible to the naked eye. Turning off the view of the fields may make things appear as they would in real life, where magnets just look like a dull piece of metal until they interact with something, but it also makes the puzzles much harder to solve. There is no reason to not have the fields on at all times and it is strange they are off by default.

For a game with magnets, the landscape is surprisingly lacking in metal. Dax does not bend the world around him to his will like Magneto; his charge glove will only affect certain orange objects which will, once charged, only affect certain other charged orange objects. Similar charges will cause the two objects to go closer to one another and different charges will have the opposite effect. Using this basic principal in an otherwise uninteractive environment, Dax can manipulate objects to get from one door to another in a series of puzzle rooms. The flow consists of puzzles sandwiched between radio conversations with various people who never seem to be anywhere near your side of the facility.

After about a dozen of these rooms they begin to look really dull. Everything is shiny plastic and metal with little variety in appearance or promise of interesting sights to see. There are only so many times that any normal person is going to want to shoot a green beam at one uninteresting box and then screw around with different polarities of other identical cubes, making them red or green until the path to the door on the other side of the room is clear. Some of these challenges are very difficult to solve and require some creative thinking to determine just how to get the fields to interact in the right way to generate enough momentum to get the various platforms and boxes to the places they need to go. For the most part it is possible to stand still in a level and plan a solution, but it would have been nice for the handful of times Dax has to move quickly and still hit targets with precise charges to have some sort of slow motion mode. Thankfully I did not have to wish for this too much as the levels and the things in them tend to not move unless you want them to.

Even with the high mental challenge and ease of execution, I found myself getting bored about a third of the way through the game. I do not know if that was intentionally paced, but right about the time I wanted to throw in the towel Dax’s glove gets a “firmware update” by remote which allows him to coalesce ambient nanomachines into a familiar form with its own powerful magnetic charge. When the fluff is stripped away, players will have the ability to generate fixed magnetic fields on virtually any surface centered around a cartoonish, immobile robot dog named Newton. As opposed to just moving the pieces around, being able to generate one’s own fields feels like actually having a physics toy to solve puzzles. Boxes across a giant gap can be charged and then a series of similarly charged Newtons can pull the box across a wall or ceiling, chaining the box from one spherical charge to the next. Conversely, a box or platform could be hurled away from a Newton spawned next to it. Where once there was no way to move a platform, now Newtons can be consecutively advanced to force them to move at rocket-like speeds. While only one Newton can exist at a time, the old one disappearing when a new one is generated by shooting an unchargeable surface or object, the mind races with possibilities on how to approach a situation when you have more control on the placement of fields. It frees things up to the point where it seems like it is possible in a few instances to get to the end of a level in a way not necessarily intended by the designer. Legitimate or not, and for me it only felt like this happened twice in the game. Even so the feeling of outsmarting the puzzlemaster is a rare and wonderful thing.

So the puzzles eventually get to be very interesting and the game looks fine. It is an Unreal Engine game where I experienced no pop-in textures, but Frogwares has done nothing to really push the envelope. There is nothing by way of lighting, environment design or special effects which are memorable. Magrunner is obviously more concerned with presenting enjoyable puzzles than with being a system killer. The only distraction from the enjoyment is that the level designs do not make a lot of sense in the context of where they are supposed to be set. At the beginning it would make sense that there are a bunch of odd, purposeless rooms, which are solely the focus of the Magrunner competition, Dax’s reason for being in the facility. But once things start to go off the rails and it becomes clear that no one cares about the game’s namesake and Dax’s only goal is to survive and eventually to stop the rise of an Elder God, doing so with polarized cubes does not make a lot of sense. There are many a level where instead of getting to a door at the end, Dax is just trying to escape the room that was a Magrunner chamber, but is now just a ruin. It is hard not to roll my eyes when for the sixth time the remaining functional mechanisms just happen to lead up to the giant hole in a wall that serves as a new exit to that room. Other games like this that eventually have players going behind the curtain, but still keeping the weird physics toy, feel more natural and make you feel more creative, even if the rusted steam room is just another complicated test chamber. Magrunner‘s ruined levels just feel like mere skins of existing, otherwise pristine levels. Those that can look past the lack of immersion and the middle-of-the-road story will find a lengthy and challenging mind-bender.

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Pros:
+ A good variety of challenges, some more memorable than others
+ Serviceable graphics, later levels have a spooky background
+ Runs smoothly, no high-end requirements on highest settings

Cons:
– Predictable story
– Pace drags in places
– Some puzzles give little direction and are harder than they need to be

Game Info:
Platform: PC via Steam (versions for PSN and XBLA are scheduled for September)
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developer: Frogwares/3 AM Games
Release Date: 6/20/2013
Genre: Puzzle
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.