Magrunner: Dark Pulse

You could be forgiven for confusing Magrunner: Dark Pulse with Portal and Portal 2.  Magrunner is very clearly inspired by Valve’s famous puzzlers.  Test chambers, cubes, moving platforms, and an experimental physics gun are all present in this game.  Don’t let all of these similarities deter you though, because Magrunner also copies the most critical feature of the Portal games – great puzzles.  Magrunner gives you the early impression that it is a magnetism-themed Portal ripoff, but it goes on to take its simple mechanics and turn them into a series of clever challenges that make for a deeply satisfying and addictive experience.  In addition, it brings some beautiful graphics to the table and a surprisingly useful story.  If you loved the Portal games and you are itching for another creative game with great puzzle-solving, then Magrunner is an easy game to recommend.

Even though it runs on the Unreal 3 engine, Magrunner looks and feels like a Valve Source Engine game.  The Unreal engine has produced some nice looking games, but most of them have had a fake-looking, overly bloomy look to them.  Magrunner, on the other hand, has the realistic lighting and the highly detailed, realistic-looking textures of the Half-Life 2 episodes.  Into these high fidelity environments, Magrunner brilliantly adds a bunch of bright colors ala TRON 2.0.  The combination is one that gives the game a very distinctive look.  It stands out against all of the brown and gray games that run on the Unreal engine, or, for that matter, just about every other game on the market.  So, even though Magrunner shares a lot of its elements with the Portal series, it has a unique vibe of its own because of its beautiful visuals.  The game's only visual blemishes are its occasional monsters and explosions, both of which look crude and primitive.  The graphics also do seem to come at a cost, and that is the frequent loading screens.  After each puzzle chamber is a slight delay before you get to tackle the next one.

The foundation of Magrunner is a simple physics mechanic – magnetism.  You'll use the magnetism gun to charge up objects.  Like objects attract one another, and opposite objects repel.  Okay, so it’s the opposite of actual physics, but the game wouldn’t work otherwise.  Objects that can be charged include cubes, panels and walls, and moving platforms.  You can traverse a room by magnetizing platforms and moving them, and you can propel yourself upward by standing on top of a cube and charging it to launch it up in the air.  You can also propel or launch explosive cubes to break glass and destroy obstacles like turrets.

Every good puzzle game needs to have lots of “aha” moments.  They are the moments where everything clicks in your head – where you suddenly figure out how to solve a puzzle and then finish it.  The best puzzle games, like Braid and Portal, have these moments in spades.  They are the highs that make it worthwhile to endure the occasional frustrating or boring period where it feels like you have exhausted everything that you can do in a test chamber.  Magrunner has those moments.  Lots of them.  Like lots of great puzzle games, it also offers up a lot of puzzles that look very complicated at first, but have a surprisingly simple and elegant solution.  It gets hard in a few places, and solving some of those more difficult challenges is an exhilarating experience.

Magrunner also feels like a Valve game in how it was designed at a basic level.  It comes across as a game that was extensively playtested before it was released.  It does an excellent job of training you in basic mechanics and then layering in progressively more advanced uses of them.  The puzzles become increasingly complex, but they always boil down to a few simple moves repeated in various situations.  Like a Valve game, Magrunner also provides you with lots of subtle visual hints about how to solve its puzzles.  For example, a large cavernous environment might have a few bright spots that call your attention to them.  Magrunner gets tough but it never gets to the level where you feel like the puzzles are unfair, or that you are supposed to read the minds of the level designers.  It will continuously surprise you with how well it can come up with new ways to put magnetism to work and create challenges.

Magrunner’s story is also recognizable – at least at first.  You are playing as a test subject for a new, futuristic technology – sound familiar?  Pretty soon, things go wrong and you are suddenly using your magnet gun in ways that you didn’t imagine (I’ll bet that you didn’t see that coming).  It has familiar trappings, but the game gets more mileage out of its story than you might expect.  That is because it spins into a campy, over-the-top, Lovecraftian story about resurrecting an ancient evil.  That, and one of your buddies is a six-armed mutant.  The story ends on somewhat of a cliffhanger, as if the developers have more in store for the future.  The game doesn’t appear to be taking itself seriously, which is a good thing, because it is pretty corny.  Suffice it to say, the story provides plenty of entertainment.  It might not be intentional, but it is entertaining, nonetheless.  Take that as you will.

Magrunner: Dark Pulse is yet another grassroots-funded success story.  Having raised about $144,000 on the Kickstarter-esque website Gamesplanet Lab, it is yet another example of how a small developer with a few new ideas and a lot of talent can create a great game.  When comparing Magrunner and Portal, it successfully avoids “ripoff” territory.  It borrows a lot of superficial elements from that series, but it also borrows the core design principles that make Valve games so much fun to play.  The game deserves to be praised for doing this.  It is a surprisingly fun game that offers a lot more than it shows with a first impression.  Magrunner: Dark Pulse is a great puzzle game that you might be tempted to dismiss as being unoriginal.  If you make that mistake, you will be cheating yourself out of a memorable experience.