You know what proves useful in many forms of pop culture? Magnets! From Walter White’s desperate erasure of an incriminating laptop to Alec Trevelyan basically robbing London via space (electromagnetic pulse totally counts), magnets have come in handy in all kinds of fields. And now, thanks to the console release of PC first-person puzzle game Magrunner: Dark Pulse, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 owners can now begin thinking with magnets!
Which is sorta like thinking with portals, but different! Sorta!
My fellow contributor Fatima has already covered the PC version in her excellent write up earlier on this site, so I’ll try to get right to the heart of the matter. Magrunner is a first-person puzzle shooter very much in the style of the beloved and meme-spawning Portal series, except using different magnetic alignments instead of portals. As opposed to a portal gun, you’re given a glove (which looks for all the world like a World War II Power Glove) that can imbue objects with one of two opposing magnetic charges, either drawing platforms and boxes together or pushing them apart. This lends the puzzles a substantially different feeling and requires different thought processes than the Portal series. Whereas the levels in Valve’s series tend to focus solely on traversing the environment with the occasional need to hit a button and release a box to carry, Magrunner goes for the opposite. Many of the game’s puzzles are almost more ‘traditional’ in nature, requiring you to hit the needed buttons/switches/whatever in the proper order before you can proceed. The way these puzzles progress almost brings to mind mid-90’s first-person shooters like Doom where progress was impeded by finding keycards and using buttons to manipulate the environment, but this time you don’t have growling alien-demons to contend with while you work out what button does what.
Some levels will have you making your way across large gaps and down dangerous chasms (no worries, there’s no falling damage, and it would be a very poor decision if there was) by using a technique scientifically known as “tossin’ boxes around”, but the majority of them follow the aforementioned button one-button two method. While the moving box levels tend to be a little more interesting and attention-grabbing, the game’s occasionally wonky physics and iffy aiming (which could be due in part to having to play with a gamepad, as the game demands a precision you don’t really get with analog sticks) tend to result in botched jumps and missed landings.
All the pressed buttons and bungled jumps in the world would look a little weird without presentation and context, and Magrunner…certainly tries. The graphics, while not nearly as impressive as the PC version, still do their job even if everything has an odd plastic sheen due to the degraded lighting effects, the framerate is consistent, and the load times are brief but prevalent. Between each level (referred to as ‘modules’), at least at first, you return to the same starting point each time for some between-test chatter, which causes some pacing issues and really doesn’t contribute to the feeling like you’re accomplishing that much. You read that right, I said ‘test’, and this brings me to my biggest grips with the game’s plot: it’s a bit…derivative.
Magrunner puts you in the shoes of a young science whiz named Dax, who with the help of his awesomely multi-armed mutant friend gets into the Magrunner trials of the Gruckerzber Corporation, a pretty transparent parody of Google (as they are creators of the LifeNET, a multifunction online network that everybody rushed to sign up for, portrayed as a cross between Facebook and Google’s various online services). These trials are portrayed as, more or less, astronaut training – whoever does the best in these trials gets to participate in extremely dangerous deep space exploration, and as you can imagine, it goes very poorly for everyone (as scientific testing and space travel is wont to do in video games). It’s not…bad, really, and it provides decent reason to go do the things you’re doing, but you’ll never really shake the feeling you’ve done and seen all of these things before. Don’t let that dissuade you, however. If you’re a fan of games that tax the intellect, you’re going to be captivated enough by the game’s unique application of physics to ignore the Event Horizon-meets-The Social Network plot (although now that I’ve just typed that sentence, that sounds awesome.)
And that’s really the most important thing: do you like puzzles, jumping, and Cthulhu? If you can say yes to at least two of those, then I say get on the Magrunner train. Try to get it on PC if you can, as the console version has some obvious (but not insurmountable) shortcomings. No matter what you buy it for, however, anyone with a hankering for a less-quotable but still intriguing Portal needs to look into Magrunner: Dark Pulse.