Magrunner Review: Forget GlaDOS, Be Afraid of Cthulhu
When Valve kicked out Portal in 2007, it helped in a lot of ways to redefine puzzle games in general, and first-person puzzle games in particular. Portal’s intricate puzzles and often high-energy solutions made use of the best elements of the FPS genre, creating a gameplay experience that was exciting as well as intellectually challenging.
It’s hard not to compare Magrunner: Dark Pulse to Portal. They’re first-person puzzlers in which players bounce around different rooms, although instead of quantum pathways from one location to another, Magrunner is all about changing the magnetic field of different objects. Players are constantly moving objects by making them attract or repulse one another, manipulating physics in a lot of similar ways to what Portal required. But Magrunner to differentiate itself fairly well, while leaning on a lot of the same ideas that made Portal so much fun.
But where Portal told a hilarious story of science gone awry, Magrunner further distances itself from Valve’s elephant in the room by turning that elephant into a winged, betentacled god from beyond the stars. Inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos, Magrunner is actually a horror game hiding behind an easygoing puzzle component. Imagine that, instead of finding out the cake was a lie in Portal, the Old Ones showed up and drove you insane with their horrific visages. That’s Magrunner.
Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Released: June 20, 2013
Magrunner follows the story of a young man named Dax who has applied to become a Magrunner, a breed of astronaut who will work with the complex “MagTech,” the ability to alter the magnetic polarities of a number of different objects. Like Portal’s controls, players have the ability to fire bursts of energy that affect different items: click LMB to fire a red pulse, representing, say, a positive charge; click RMB to fire a green pulse, representing negative. Two polarities of the same color attract, while opposite polarities repel.
Though it’s actually the opposite of how magnets work in reality, solving puzzles with the colored bursts of MagTech becomes pretty intuitive after a point. The story has Dax heading off to the MagTech Corporation’s test facility, ostensibly to audition to become a Magrunner, and the entirety of the game is basically working through test chambers, solving puzzles. Sometimes these involve using certain machines and reversed polarities to shoot objects across gaps, or to open certain doors, or circumvent turrets. There’s a whole lot of similarity between Magrunner and Portal in the construction of test chambers and solutions, which actually works to the game’s advantage. There’s a lot of familiarity here, which makes Magrunner accessible, but the puzzles are different and disparate enough that the magnetic mechanic makes things feel fresh.
But it’s the Lovecraftian focus of Magrunner that really makes it stand apart from games such as Quantum Conundrum and the Portal series. Before too long, the Magrunner tests go to hell, with monstrous creatures appearing in the test chambers and stranger and stranger areas becoming accessible to Dax. Frogwares manages to imbue the entire game with a real sense of dread and a deadly atmosphere; you’re not just solving puzzles now, you’re looking for the escape you so desperately need, and you never know what might be waiting in the next chamber.
The Lovecraft story itself is pretty standard fare, and players who’ve read anything of the author or played any other Lovecraft-inspired games will feel a lot of familiarity here. The story itself isn’t necessarily a standout, but it does do enough to keep the usual stuff — solving puzzles and exploring the facility as it becomes weirder and weirder — interesting in its own right.