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.