It really cannot be overstated how much Portal made an impact to video games when released in 2007. Valve snatched up a few Digipen students with an ambitious project, gave it that high quality Valve polish and released it as part of The Orange Box. The game was considered tertiary to the rest of The Orange Box – the more hyped games being the long-awaited Team Fortress 2, and Half-Life 2: Episode Two, the continuation of the Half-Life 2 saga – but Portal somehow became that surprise smash hit that started making small waves in the puzzle platforming genre.
In the years following, a fair share of games would copy Portal’s first-person perspective but try it with different ideas. Antichamber did puzzle-solving in impossible spaces. Quantum Conundrum involved shifting between dimensions to affect objects in the world. Even something like The Ball had the titular ball be used to solve tricky puzzles. But I couldn’t think of a puzzle game that involved gravity and polarity. Until now.
Enter Magrunner: Dark Pulse. A first-person puzzle platformer that involves polarity and gravity to solve puzzles. Released in 2013 for the PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, it’s another one of those puzzle platformers that involve shooting objects to solve puzzles.
This was developed by 3AM Games, a small development studio based in Kyiv, Ukraine. They had done contract work with Frogwares, the developers of the myriad of Sherlock Holmes games. Funded on the crowdfunding site Ulele, they received €110,000 in funding, just barely hitting their €100,000 goal. With some help from Frogwares and distributor Focus Home Interactive, they were able to make this game a reality. As far as I know, this would end up being 3AM’s last known project, as most of the team joined Frogwares proper not long after.
I had gotten this for free on GOG not long after its release, and had mostly thrown it into The Pile that is my neverending backlog. Struggling to figure out a game to play, I let The Backloggery’s Fortune Cookie feature do its magic, and it picked this. Though I opted to use my Steam copy, of which I don’t remember when I got it. Maybe around the same time as I snagged the GOG edition. So if you’re wondering why this game might be in your game library, that might be it.
You play as Dax Ward, an orphaned child whose parents died rather unexpectedly. Being mentored by a mutant scientist named Gamaji, Ward enters a contest to be one of the first people to use MagTech’s space training program, sponsored by LifeNet, a major social media conglomerate. The whole Magrunner event is broadcast and shown, featuring Magrunners from all walks of life.
Everything starts out smoothly, where Magrunners are solving the puzzles within. Parts of Magrunner start out feeling very Portal-esque at first. Dax moves from test chamber to test chamber through elevators, the test chambers are very clean and scientific like Portal’s Aperture Science test chambers, stuff like that. So far you’d expect that it’s gonna be similar to that, right?
Then the power starts malfunctioning and people slowly are dying. Dax must survive and get to the bottom of this mess by solving puzzles involving polarity. Which sounds silly, but hey, it’s a puzzle game, those things don’t need that strong of a plot.
If you’ve played Portal, most of Magrunner’s mechanics will make sense pretty quickly. Dax has two polarity colors – Red and Green by default, though they can be changed to any color – of which he can put onto objects highlighted in yellow. Much like magnets and polarity in real life, two objects of the same polarity color will often stick together, while two objects with different polarity colors will repel them away from each other.
Throughout Dax’s journey through the catastrophe, he’ll solve a multitude of polarity puzzles, flinging boxes, using platforms, trying to avoid turrets that’ll shoot him on contact – sorry, these ones don’t talk with a cutesy voice – all the typical puzzle platformer stuff.
While it does keep the relative simplicity of Portal’s two object rule, the gravity and physics stuff takes a lot of getting used to. Often times Dax will need to move a platform, which often requires to make the platform and the switch handling the lift be on different polarities, which can be tough if it’s a vertical lift like the one above.
Sometimes a box is needed to solve a certain section or to hit a switch, and that’s a tricky challenge as it reacts to polarities as well, which means one has to avoid hitting a box with the opposite polarity of the platform, otherwise it’ll fly off. Boxes do respawn infinitely, but it can be a frustrating experience to try to transport these to make progress in a later section and lose them by bad physics, or if having to use them to propel yourself across an arena, which can be wonky sometimes. It’s much worse if they’re explosive boxes, as they’ll instantly kill Dax if one’s not careful.
Halfway through Dax will acquire Newton, a pet dog of his that can be used to put polarity on other objects outside of the prerequisite platforms and boxes. In one stage I used Newton to help carry a box over to a different area by constantly shooting him onto the walls so the box would travel with him. Other times I had to use Newton to reverse polarity so Dax can move faster off platforms or hold an endlessly moving platform in place.
As mentioned earlier, when everything goes wrong and people are dying, Dax has no choice but to keep doing the puzzles as these people didn’t think of making emergency exits. As Dax goes further into the arenas, he ends up finding a lot of eldritch horrors scribbled on the walls and dilapidated chambers. No “cake is a lie” stuff here, this is outright horrific in spots.
As Dax plunges further into the facility, he finds out that the Magrunner technology was based on some old cult that praised Cthulhu, that weird eldritch god created by H.P. Lovecraft. Later, Dax stumbles upon some of the monsters while he’s traversing murky underwater caverns on a sole platform, which adds onto that horror element. This happening in real time gives me vibes from stuff like Half-Life, where everything seems normal until something tragic happens and you’re fighting to survive.
I genuinely wasn’t expecting there to be references to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos in here. Though, it’s not really mentioned all that much outside of the fairly obvious ones. Yes, there’s a “CTHULHU FHTAGN!” reference in here, because of course there is.
I assume elements of this game are meant to evoke something from that same Lovecraftian universe, but I wouldn’t know for certain. Admittedly I have not read anything by H.P. Lovecraft, so this may be more than a passing reference to his work. If there is a much more clearer link to Cthulhu in this game, please let me know.
There isn’t much to say about Dax Ward as a character. He’s often worried and concerned as the world’s collapsing around him, and there’s no other characters that Dax interacts with in person, just through the Magrunner glove. It gives a deep sense of dread as he has to figure out how to escape, while also solving the mystery of what’s going on.
It seems the only personality Dax has is “Confident, then shouting in a panic all the time when everything’s going wrong.” Which I can understand considering the situation at hand. But he is a fairly forgettable, run-of-the-mill white dude with a shaved head and cool duds. I think I get why Valve didn’t give Portal‘s Chell much of a personality.
Now to get into the more negative aspects. Puzzle platformers are an incredibly delicate balance. One has to make it easy for someone to get the gist of what they need to do immediately, but also ramp up the difficulty slowly so it doesn’t become a trial-and error process.
My general issue with puzzle platformers is that they sometimes require patience and good timing to successfully complete them. If I can’t figure it out, I get frustrated by having to do constant trial-and-error experiments to figure out the solution. Since I don’t like stopping a game mid-puzzle, leaving it unfinished, this means that I’m figuratively banging my head at a puzzle for a good hour or so because the instructions aren’t clear, or they don’t work in the way I expect them to.
Sadly, Magrunner is no exception to this problem. Several of the puzzles had the problem where I expected the platforms or polarity to do one thing, only for it to do the opposite. In some cases I had to cheese certain parts by jumping on the sides of those large yellow boxes. Some of the late game puzzles were so obtuse to me that I had to look at guides on YouTube to figure out the solution.
I feel a bit of shame admitting that on here, but one of the tricks of a good puzzle platformer is having a solution that makes sense without having to look at a guide to figure it out. I know that this isn’t usually my genre of choice, but even inexperienced or novice players might struggle with this one.
Magrunner also tries to be a bit more action oriented towards the end. Alongside the aforementioned turrets, some of the monsters that Dax has brushed up against in his travels start appearing, and they have to be avoided, otherwise Dax will die. The biggest problem is that Dax cannot sprint and move quickly, thus dodging enemies becomes difficult in some cases, especially if you don’t have a lot of time to take them out. Thankfully the common FPS trick of bunnyhopping seems to work just fine, but I would’ve honestly abandoned this whole concept, or at least made it a way so that Dax isn’t being constantly chased.
I’ll refrain from really giving any more spoilers, but it does go a bit more off the rails towards the end than what I’ve mentioned. Basically lots of horror vibes that make this a bit unsettling if you’re not expecting it. This game definitely gets that M for Mature rating here.
Magrunner: Dark Pulse is a perfectly tolerable game. It has its quirks, as do most puzzle games, but I feel the Cthulhu stuff was kinda tacked on, and in a post-Portal world, it’s hard to really make a first-person puzzle platformer that doesn’t take pages from Valve’s game. Thus it kinda stands in the shadow of Portal. Though in spite of that, it’s still an alright game. Definitely was enjoyable for the few hours I played of it.
If you’re into puzzle platformers, it’s definitely worth a try. It’s on Steam and on GOG for $20, which is a bit of a hard sell at that price, so I’d wait until it goes on sale if you’re itching for another puzzle platformer to play. Just be forewarned that Magrunner can get a bit frustrating, so temper your expectations accordingly. Magnets and polarity are a bit more complex than Portal’s, uh, portals, after all.
Honestly, I think I need to play some more of these puzzle platformers. First-person or not, there’s something enjoyable about these kind of games, that they’re willing to experiment with stuff that where you could learn something about physics and science from. Now I kinda want something like this, but with less Cthulhu and more cutesy stuff. Hell, this game kinda makes me want to look more into Frogwares’ catalog, maybe actually try one of those Sherlock Holmes games that people keep talking about. I bet those won’t go into eldritch horror like this game did.
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