As a puzzle enthusiast, the Portal franchise stands out as one of the most ground-breaking and influential platformers of its generation. Portal 2 was my personal Game of The Year in 2011. Marrying simple physics-based platforming with a unique and involving story allowed Valve to showcase just how much can be achieved with limited gameplay mechanics. Part of Portal’s beauty was the developer’s self-imposed constraints, working within basic principles to prove that less is sometimes more.
In keeping with this ethos, indie developer Frogwares has created Magrunner: Dark Pulse. Mixing loosely interpreted Newtonian Physics and magnetic field principles with a story unashamedly rooted in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, this is a game that would be quite easy to overlook amidst the myriad platformers on the market.
At first glance, many might mistake Magrunner for just another cheap imitation of a modern classic; a budget clone riding the coat tails of its spiritual predecessors. I certainly held out no real hope after viewing some bland screenshots in the loading menu. In all honesty, I wasn’t quite prepared for how addictive it would become. Once this game grabs hold of you, it doesn’t let go. Its draw is as strong as the magnetic fields that make up its gameplay.
After a brief prologue concerning the discovery of near future technology developed for deep space exploration, we are introduced to Dax, a gifted young inventor who has been invited to a testing facility run by the Gruckezber Corporation. Dax is being assessed on his aptitude for this new technology, and so must pass through a series of testing chambers using his Magtech glove to manipulate objects within the environment by changing their polarity.
Firing a beam at a block or platform will cause it to be drawn to any other objects of the same charge within its magnetic field. Objects of opposite polarity will repel each other; a simple premise, but with many subtle variations and possibilities. For instance, placing one metal block on top of another and charging them with different polarities will cause the top block to suddenly fly off, taking you with it if you’re stood in the right place. This can be beneficial if you need to reach otherwise inaccessible places.
Alternatively, there will be times when you need to use the laws of attraction to bring objects towards you, especially considering that magnetic fields are effective through walls and floors.
As well as spherical fields of magnetism around objects, you can also create charged columns by placing a block into a premade receptacle which focuses the magnetic field through a lens. This is useful for beaming a charge across a test chamber to reach movable platforms in the distance; basic principles that are easy to learn but devilish to master.
The first few chambers pass quickly, serving as a rudimentary tutorial, during which Dax interacts with other characters via a kind of holographic Facetime feature on his glove. You are quite skilfully lulled into a false sense of security as you confidently bound across chasms and up onto ledges, congratulated by the invigilators monitoring your progress remotely.
Things take a turn for the worse at the end of the first act, however, when the testing facility goes offline temporarily. As the lights come back on, your surroundings begin to show signs that something is terribly wrong. Akin to the early levels of Half-Life and Portal, the facility starts to degrade as walls collapse and you constantly end up outside of the testing chambers, suddenly fighting for your life rather than academic distinction.
Over the following levels, the primary colours of the sterile testing chambers are deftly replaced with cultist symbols, Lovecraftian mythology and eldritch environments. The story unfolds with perfect pace as your mentor, a six armed mutant named Gamaji, discloses the real reason you’ve been invited to the facility. Gamaji also patches a firmware update to your glove which allows to you anchor charged particles to walls and objects, adding a further problem solving dynamic to master.
The 40 levels are spread across three distinct acts, eventually culminating in a crescendo of all-out cosmic horror which, although ultimately formulaic, is still very enjoyable. The later stages in particular stand out as some of the most memorable examples of indie level design in recent years.
Magrunner is not without its drawbacks, however. While most of the earlier test chambers aren’t too taxing, there were occasions where the complexity of the puzzles caused me to switch off after several failed attempts. Thankfully, one of the plus points of a first person perspective means that you can work on possible solutions away from the game. Several times I found myself having eureka moments at my desk or in the car, heightening the sense of achievement I felt when returning to the game and progressing through a difficult level.
Other noticeable issues were the rather long load times in between each stage, along with repetitive level transitions, as well as near some silent robotic drones capable of insta-killing you without warning.
Above niggles aside, this is a game definitely worth adding to your collection. Combining elements of 3D physics-based puzzle solving with a well-established gothic horror narrative, Magrunner presents unique and addictive challenges. As a crowd funded, budget title, this is a genuine contender for Indie Game of The Year; it really is that good.