Unless I've missed most of them, there hasn't exactly been a glut of first-person puzzlers post Portal. Here to help fill that niche is Magrunner: Dark Pulse, a colorful puzzler mechanically centered around magnetism and narratively centered around H.P. Lovecraft's mythical, octopus-faced monster-god Cthulhu.
It begs to be loved. Cthulhu is perhaps more "in" right now than since its inception, particularly among videogame fans that overlap so fluidly with genre fiction and Lovecraft's tales. To developer Frogwares' credit, the almost shrewd amalgamation works surprisingly well at times, yet is rent asunder when the incompatibilities of the written and interactive mediums are exposed.
Magrunner: Dark Pulse (PC)
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Released: June 20, 2013
Magrunner begins with an ill-advised exposition dump. First, a lengthy cutscene, then more dialogue as you're confined to a closed, circular room you can do little in but wade in circles. Its protagonist, Dax C. Ward, the world's most average-looking, buzz-cut-sporting, young white guy, is a parent-less scientific genius raised by a socially outcasted mutant. This is not particularly important.
The narrative is facile and squandered. Gamaji is a mutant, which we're told makes him a social outcast, but we're only shown a reporter being snooty and revolted by him once. Really all it means is he has a bunch of cool extra arms and helps Dax out throughout the game. Similarly, the reporter is there to be a bit of a jerk and then summarily ignored. Other stock characters make appearances, like "scummy CEO" and "off-kilter head of sciences who seems to be running everything."
Every move in the story is telegraphed so blatantly, like when apropos of nothing Gamaji wants to tell you some secret about your parents, that I wonder why there even was a story. Still, things started out strong when the initial exposition dump ended and I was dropped into a testing facility of sorts and started figuring out how magnets worked. At least as far as the game was concerned.
The system is simple, similar to Portal. The left mouse can give certain objects a particular charge, designated by color, and so too can the right mouse. Opposite charges repel, similar charges attract. Solve puzzles. I moved along at a steady clip for the first chunk of the game genuinely enjoying well-designed puzzles that featured inventive use of the magnet gun. Soon things in the testing facility start going wonky and you're pretty sure you just saw a fish monster murder a competitor and Magrunner gets legitimately and impressively creepy.
You leave the stark white, sterile obstacle course for blueish gray, dank caverns exposed by a broken wall. Suddenly, chains are inexplicably hanging down from the ceiling just to make sure you know you're in an eerie place, early testing grounds of the tech. Platforms move a little faster, stop a bit harder, and with a more mechanical clunk -- it's a neat, subtle tonal shift from the gently hovering platforms in the obstacle course.
This is when things start to get particularly creepy. At one point, I took my headphones off for a reprieve -- partially to relieve myself, partially to give my psyche a rest -- and there was a super spooky wind beating outside my window. I can't confirm, but I'm pretty sure the game set that up as part of its atmosphere. I wouldn't put it past Cthulhu.
The slow, psychological pacing works well because the base mechanic is puzzling, not survival horror, so you're focusing on puzzling while things are getting slowly more and more unnerving. There are moments when you snap out of safe, numbing puzzle solving and hear a noise or see a scary thing and realize things are headed in a grim direction. You're even dared to wade through waist-high water at one point knowing full well a creepy fish monster could be swimming about. Jaws never scared me, but delving into murky water in games terrifies me.
Where Magrunner really lost me, beyond its banal characters and plot, is that it stretches itself too thin. The moments of psychological tension eventual wither and rot in a game that just has too many puzzles.
Eventually the creepy fish monster that could be around any corner becomes an enemy that walks around with a goofy animation and attacks you with an even more inept, floundering animation. In the last half, new mechanics are added arbitrarily, like Dax's mechanical dog that can be shot at randomly appropriate surfaces and gives off its own charge. Emphasis on precise platforming in overly expansive levels means a lot of retries. The difficulty spike alone kills any sense of progress or tension. Worst, it's not that things get more clever, but merely more complex and tedious.
Magrunner does enough right that the things it does wrong become so frustrating. It riffs on Portal almost slavishly; the simple bi-color visual mechanic, the arc from clean testing facility to dank, early prototype areas, and so on. At the same time, it messes up the formula, including too many needlessly sprawling and tedious puzzles while jamming in banal characters and an uninteresting plot.
What it does differently, it squanders, like the psychological horror aspects that devolve into indifference and annoyance. Even Cthulhu is rendered an inert set piece. The game looks gorgeous. Sometimes the puzzles are great. Sometimes the atmosphere is impressive. Unfortunately, Magrunner fails to live up to the sum of its best parts.
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