Magrunner Review: Forget GlaDOS, Be Afraid of Cthulhu
And for the most part, that creates a fun experience in Magrunner that’s just different enough to keep players moving forward, without necessarily blowing the doors off the small but well-loved genre. The magnetic puzzles are often pretty inspired, and once you realize the fun things you can do with polarities, you’ll see solutions you might never have considered otherwise. Frogwares does a great job of constantly pushing the envelope in small, subtle ways, so that by pretty close to the end of the game, you’ve gained a range of skills and solved some pretty complex rooms.
There are some hiccups, though. Especially toward the end, Frogwares tries some new ideas with varying degrees of success. Quickly using objects and polarities to outrun monsters, and even to actually fight back, works better in theory than in practice. A few rooms in which you actually have to engage freakish monstrosities are more annoying than they are exciting, although a few moments in which your job is just to flee in terror manage to get the heart pumping. Actually throwing dangers at the player and forcing her to use the game’s mechanics to fight them is a great idea, but the enemy AI doesn’t do much except truck right at you with little or no way to avoid it. You’re tasked with quickly setting off magnetic bombs or clearing your path, but some difficulties with precision firing of your beams mean you end up with a lot of restarts in those moments.
There are also a few other puzzles and moments in which you might find yourself just banging your head against the wall, not because figuring out a solution is tough, but because executing it is frustrating. There are some puzzle chambers and rooms in which frequent deaths can occur, or what feels like a bit of random interaction between two polarities can reset you to zero. There were several moments in which I thought I should be able to use the reversed polarity of a platform and cube to launch myself straight up to a higher ledge, only to have that cube chuck me sideways rather than just rise straight up. These moments aren’t frequent, but they also feel like they don’t happen for any real reason, and often resolve themselves just as quickly as they crop up.
And though Magrunner gets ominous and dangerous once the Lovecraft portion of the story kicks into gear, it never really fully commits to being a horror experience. Dax starts out frightened, maybe to the point of not being able to handle the situation, but it’s not long before he’s cracking wise again. Many of the horror elements are painted on the walls rather than actually experienced. Magrunner is first and foremost a puzzle title, but a willingness to really commit to the Lovecraftian horror angle, and all the psychological creepiness that entails, could have been really something. As it stands, it feels as though the game only goes halfway — it’s too bad it feels more like Dead Rising than Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
Magrunner does scratch an important itch, though: it gets the first-person puzzler genre, and it provides a new and dynamic set of mechanics that feel just different enough from other games in the genre. With the added Lovecraftian edge and horror atmosphere, Magrunner is a fun experience, even if it occasionally stalls and sputters. It might not be quite so engaging a world as that of Cave Johnson and GlaDOS, but Frogwares’ game is a worthy puzzler that manages to step mostly out of Portal’s long shadow — no easy feat. A tighter embrace from Cthulhu’s face-tentacles might have helped set itself apart even further.
- Magnetism gameplay mechanic manages to feel familiar and intuitive, while also being novel
- Despite obviously taking a lot of inspiration from Portal, Magrunner’s mechanics are different enough to get the best parts of that influence, without feeling like a clone
- Lovecraftian story is a great fit for the game, and its horror atmosphere drives the action forward and makes puzzles feel important in a great way
- Lots of inspired, challenging puzzles throughout
- A few moments really hit the horror vibe and produce serious dread
- Some puzzles and areas, especially toward the end, swing toward irritation
- There are moments when magnetic fields don’t seem to work quite right, sometimes causing a puzzle solution to fail repeatedly
- Levels with dangerous monsters often cause a high number of deaths, killing the dread and turning it to frustration
- While the environments are pretty, models for monsters and characters are sometimes dull or wonky
- Story never really leans into the horror aspects enough to truly be Lovecraftian beyond the inclusion of the Cthulhu Mythos
Final Score: 75/100
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