Portal meets Cthulhu in Magrunner: Dark Pulse.
I have no idea what led the developers at Frogwares to come up with the idea for Magrunner: Dark Pulse, a first-person puzzler that blends high-tech sci-fi gameplay with the interdimensional horrors of the Cthulhu mythos, but I have happy news for gamers who were hopeful that it would live up to its promise: it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good stuff.
For those who missed our preview, Magrunner: Dark Pulse is a very Portal-like puzzle game (you are familiar with Portal, right?) set in a gleaming high-tech future, in which you’ll navigate large obstacle-filled chambers as one of seven potential space explorers known colloquially as “Magrunners.” It’s a fairly thin and perfunctory plot, but it takes an interesting twist shortly after the game begins when the test facility (and the rest of the world) starts to fall apart thanks to a sudden incursion by the great, ancient Cthulhu and his Lovecraftian brethren.
Using your “Magtech glove,” you’ll manipulate objects by applying magnetic fields to them, causing them to attract or repel one another. The controls are simple, consisting of conventional first-person movement keys and a left or right click to magnetize crates (cubes?) and platforms, and a thorough tutorial does a fine job of explaining how magnets work. There’s no running or crouching or anything more exotic than a jump, and while some degree of platforming competence will be useful, thoughtfulness, patience and a good eye are what you’ll really need to make it through.
“Likes attract, opposites repel” is a pretty simple concept but the game does enough with it to keep things interesting. You’ll sometimes need to combine objects of the same magnetic polarity to get the job done or use opposing polarities to lift elevators or launch magnetized crates around a level. You’ll even eventually acquire the ability to place your own magnetic anchors in the form of a cute, robotic dog named Newton. The actual difficulty isn’t all that great once you’ve gotten the hang of how it works, but some of the challenges you’ll run into will definitely have you scratching your head for a while.
Magrunner: Dark Pulse is sharp, bright and colorful, but like many indie games it lacks the subtle but unmistakable visual sheen of its triple-A brethren. Textures are a bit flat and have an oddly hand-drawn look to them when viewed up close, and even as the Magtech testing facility is collapsing all around you, the lighting remains remarkably bright and even. Water effects are relatively low-fidelity, and explosions, broken glass and the turrets that appear now and then have almost no visual or auditory pop – it’s quite easy to be killed by a turret without even knowing you’re being shot at. Fortunately, explosions and gunfire aren’t a big part of the experience, and on a more positive note the field of view is adjustable: a real boon for anyone prone to falling prey to motion sickness when playing first-person games.
The individual levels are about what you’d expect, gradually growing in size and scope as you progress through the game, but the facility that purportedly contains them is far less impressive, with loading screens presented as elevator rides through massive, chasm-like and virtually identical corridors that do nothing to generate any feeling of progression or even differentiation. And despite the determinedly oddball setup, Magrunner: Dark Pulse is played straight, with not a hint of irony in sight. It’s almost too straight at times; some of the voice acting gazes into the abyss of melodrama and the story’s occasional silly turns are apparently expected to be taken with a straight face. It’s not scary, but it’s not sly, either.
But the biggest issue is simply the relative lack of Cthulhu in a game that is ostensibly about Cthulhu. I expected the Lovecraft angle to feature prominently, given that it’s Magrunner’s big hook, but while the wheels come off the testing facility fairly early in the game and there’s absolutely no question as to why (one of the earliest signs of trouble is a distorted chant of “Cthulhu fhtagn”), actual evidence of the Old Gods’ entry into our realm remains very thin for most of the game. There’s plenty of Cthulhu-esque graffiti on the walls painted by persons of unknown origin, but while some of it is legitimately creepy, it’s more Dead Space than Lovecraft.
When you do finally break through to the demonic dimension (spoiler: you do), it turns out to be a very visually impressive place that’s fortunately still equipped with the elevators, crates and other paraphernalia of the testing lab that you’ll need to get around. The unearthly minions, on the other hand, are a letdown, suffering from awkward, clunky animations and occasional lapses in AI – although maybe I’m just really good at distracting them. You’ll also run into a couple of action sequences that will test your skills under pressure, although they’re mild enough that even slow-twitchers will be able to get through them with relative ease once they’ve figured out what they need to do. And while it’s strictly window dressing, the image of great, monstrous Cthulhu glowering down upon your struggles really is something to behold.
In spite of some stumbles, Magrunner: Dark Pulse gets the important bits right. The puzzles are entertaining, difficulty ramps up on a smooth, gentle curve and even though it’s lighter on the Great Old One than I’d like, the fact that he’s here at all in this sci-fi puzzle game – and that it’s not just a cheap cash-in on the name – makes it a lot of good fun.