“A High Tech World Gone Mad”

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Game Info
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developer: 3AM/Frogwares
Genre: Action-Puzzle
Release Date: 06/20/2013(PC)/Q3 (XBLA,PSN)
Meta Score

Let’s get it out of the way. Magrunner: Dark Pulse owes a lot to Portal. And it borrows a lot from Portal. It does a lot of things that make me think “Boy, Portal had a hand here.” Some are obvious things, others more subtle. Some Magrunner takes and amplifies, making them its own and running with them well. Others it just kind of changes the text and goes “Look at me! It’s Cthuhlu!” Regardless of how much Magrunner wants to be Portal’s adopted child, it still manages to surprise, with a distinct personality, a particular flavor, and enough interesting elements thrown together to make it stand apart, even if it is still shaded under the massive shadow of Portal.

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STORY: You play Dax C. Ward, a young techno-genius in the year 2050. The entire world is essentially bound to a single universal social network known as LifeNET. The Net was built by the Gruckezber Corporation, and with great success, they have journeyed into the world of clean energy. After years of research, they mastered it in the form of Mag Tech, which, I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear, is based on magnetic technology.

Using this new clean energy, the Gruckezber Corporation is ready to expand humanity’s influence to the stars, and wants to select 7 astronauts for the job from the populace. Turning it into a reality TV affair (something that strikes a chord with our modern world), the 7, including you, begin the game by running through the MagTech Deep Space Exploration Training Program.

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This section is like a Mirror’s Edge/Portal lovechild with its white-washed walls, bright pop colors, and scientific minimalism. As to be expected, things go awry, and over the course of a few puzzles, the world slowly transitions into a dirtier, more nefarious one, before going downright other-worldly. Hell, that pesky Cthuhlu even gets involved! The transition is done well, though it will draw inevitable conclusions to Portal’s similar tone shift, except that Magrunner takes a deliberate turn with an evil touch, and less of the cheeky comedic angle.

Throughout the game your MagGlove (a handheld device that lets you manipulate the magnetic charges of MagTech devices) will keep you in contact with various characters, from the PR woman for Gruckezber, and the scientist who may not be what he seems, to Gamaji, your mutant mentor. I say that literally, the man has four arms, but represents the father figure and the main source of backstory in the game. This range of characters does give the game some breathing room in what it can explore in the story and what perspectives it wants to feed information to you from. With the overarching mystery element of “What’s going on?” this plays out well, if somewhat predictably.

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The story weaves a few turns and twists here and there, but nothing is terribly groundbreaking or world shattering (save literal world shattering by Lovecraftian beasts). This is one of the faults of Magrunner. It tries to pull a Christopher Nolan on the first-person puzzle world. This seriousness kind of dilutes the experience; it feels like it’s trying to take itself a little too seriously. It makes up for it with game play; and the story will always keep your interest piqued, but it never quite feels like it lives up to all it wants to be.

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GAMEPLAY: Magrunner plays much like its spiritual inspiration. You have two primary fire controls. One trigger launches a green charge, the other a red charge. Same colored objects attract each other, and different colored objects repel. You also have the option to change the color scheme if you prefer, with a variety of options. A handy button-press will also make magnetic fields visible so you can see exactly how far the influence of a charged object goes.

Naturally, magnets work in an opposite way, same polarities repel, different polarities attract. Magrunner earns its digression because this makes it simpler to read a puzzle at first glance. It’s intuitive and easily accessible. The game does a pretty good job of making sure you can accurately maneuver platforms and manipulate charges before diving into the really heady stuff through your standard fare of “Get your bearings” puzzles. It still has a few hiccups though. When holding objects you can’t jump. That’s usually not an issue but occasionally you’ll find yourself in awkward situations where that proves something of an annoyance. Smartly, though, in most cases there is an object respawn point so if you lose your box (the primary object you’re lugging around) into an unmovable situation you can simply bring it back or get a new one and continue where you were.

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The puzzles range from challenging to annoyingly simple. There were a few that stumped me for quite some time, and then others right after those head-scratchers that I could look at and solve within a few seconds. But while the solutions can sometimes be divined within a few moments, it’s worth noting that executing your plans in this game is a whole ‘nother thing entirely. So besides a few rage-inducing super-puzzles, the game does a competent job of keeping things moving along fairly without getting ahead of itself.

Your MagGlove is super accurate to a fault. Your tiny dot of a reticule is exactly where the charge will land, and if you’re off by a pixel it’ll miss and leave you out to dry. This can lead to some frustrating points later on when you’re on a moving platform in a complicated series of magnetic fields, trying to hit a small object at distance. Many a puzzle has been repeated due to this “accuracy.”

It does feature a laser aiming system, wherein you hold your mouse button or trigger and activate a laser that’ll point where you’re aiming. Looks nice, but if you’re already having issues hitting your target, a little laser that’s still as specific a point as the reticule isn’t going to help you.

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For the first part of the game, you’re limited to only manipulating certain objects within the cubes, like platforms or small boxes and the like. Later on, as the puzzles become increasingly elaborate, you’re introduced to the best character in the game: Newton. Newton is a little robot dog that Dax built when he was a kid. Your MagGlove is upgraded to fire a series of nanomachines at surfaces that take the shape of little Newton and his big robo-puppy eyes. You can then change Newton’s charge to what the puzzle needs, meaning you can create instances of magnetic fields independent of what the puzzles give you, opening your options up even more.

This had a bizarre effect on me personally as I ended up talking to my Newton on more than one occasion and using him as a bouncing board for ideas. I guess when I play puzzles I talk aloud to myself to work my way through them. Newton gave me an in-game, in-character way of figuring them out. Not so  much a gameplay treat as a personal narrative building experience, but in addition to be being useful to the advancement of my game, he offered something intangible that definitely improved my experience.

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Overall the game can be expected to take around 8-10 hours to work through, depending on your skill levels of course and how quickly you can decipher the forty-odd challenges. For me, it clocked in at around 8.5 hours which is a very respectable time for a digital download title in this genre.

It’s not all jumping puzzles too. The game includes multiple enemies that will attempt to subvert your progression (read: kill you). Some, like the Deep Ones, are relatively passive, hiding out in the water to kill you if you get your feet wet. Make sure you remember when one is around, because there are plenty of points where you can enter water and not suffer any consequences. But with a Deep One within the area, you’re dead as soon as you get dripped on.

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Another enemy is the turret. Not the adorable kind you may be instantly thinking of either. These are heartless hover-platforms with laser-spitting gatling cannons on them. They don’t mess around with niceties. They just spin up; turn to face you and you’ve got about a second and a half to get out of the way.

There’s not a lot of fanfare in this game when it comes to taking damage or dying. It just kind of… happens, it seems. And the sounds aren’t entirely warning either, so if you’re near turrets, you have to pay careful mind to where they’re aiming or where they can get you. You can get shot up in two seconds and not realize you were in danger. Obviously a bit of a concern.

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GRAPHICS: The game looks great for a digital download title, but the levels are where it really shines. Design and textures look breathtaking in a few of the other-world challenges, and the transition from sterile science to worlds of madness, it does it with a clear visual continuity. Close inspection does ruin some of the magic on some of the textures, things like water get a little bland when examined too closely, and some of the monster models like the Deep Ones feel lacking (especially for a cannibalistic monster). At the same time, a few of the character models that appear as holograms on your Mag Glove look like they belong in a modern game, with a few exceptions suffering from bumpy or pudgy looking textures.

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For the  most part the game is great looking and won’t offend your eyes. It’s got a certain dirtiness to it that gives some of the blander textures real flavor, and the mix of this organic nightmare world with the cold familiar science-fiction does the game a lot of favors in terms of creative a visual style that does set it apart from anything else quite like it in this vein. They did a good job of making sure that, yes, you will be thinking of Portal when you start the game for the first time, but you’ll definitely be in new territory by the midpoint, and all of that extra work is done in the graphical department. It’s one of the high points of this game, seeing the ambiance and environments pay off so well in such a fun, new way.

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SOUND: This is where things are a little weaker. The voice acting is alright, the characters delivering their lines with a believable amount of fear or concern, but it doesn’t go much beyond that. The material is interesting enough (if you’re into the Cthuhlu fare) to make up for it a bit, but I never really felt like the game was giving me its all. It all felt a little too underwhelming.

The music is eerie and electronic, just what you would expect from a game like this. It does its job well enough in the majority of the sections, but there are times when it’s trying to be eerie when it doesn’t need to be at all. I had one puzzle that I was on for a little bit, and it had just introduced a Deep One to me. I wasn’t terribly concerned as I mentioned earlier, they stay in the water, but the music had that ear-shattering high-pitch terror rise that movies use right before something jumps out of the closet to ratchet up the tension. It was unbearable. And it went on and on and kept repeating  itself with a few seconds of a break in the middle, and the entire time I was simply trying to figure out what polarity to make a platform. Felt very out of place and got downright annoying.

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That drove me madder than anything else and might’ve contributed to me taking longer on that puzzle than normal. It felt out of place. I mean sure I can abide some scary music when the scary thing is in my face, but when I’m trying to analyze a complicated system of magnets with no time penalty or urgency, I don’t need the music screeching at me to hurry up or I’ll get devoured.

REPLAY: Magrunner suffers a bit in the replay category through its lack of Portal’s humor. Once you’ve worked your way through the cubes and staved off Cthuhlu’s madness, it seems there’s very little in the way to bring you back for a second round. There is a kind of lack of minutiae that would keep you coming back for repeated playthroughs to see more insightful easter eggs or the like.

This is really a shame as the puzzle-solving is Magrunner’s greatest strength, and I’m a little sad to see that it doesn’t have more pull to keep me interested in multiple play throughs, or support the same kind of user functionality to allow in creating custom cubes or puzzles. At least not as of yet.

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Magrunner. Come for the puzzles and stay… for more of the puzzles. The rest of it gets pushed down to icing on the puzzle cake; keeping it interesting without ever feeling like it’s reaching its full potential. Though it is worth noting that it’s fun to play and will certainly entertain, it doesn’t quite make the impression I’d like it to. Magrunner is out now on PC (Steam), and is scheduled to be released on PSN and XBLA sometime Q3 2013 for $19.99.

Written By: R. Burke Kearney

 


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