Ia! Ia! GLaDOS Fhtagn: A Review of Magrunner: Dark Pulse

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A good puzzle game is an elusive thing. Tune it too tightly and it’s an infuriating reminder of your incompetence, little more than an endless parade of excuses to tab over to a walkthrough. If you’re too generous, it’s a non-experience, a “Best Participant” ribbon and patronizing smile from the developers. “You can press start, here’re some achievements! Good job!”

But a well-designed puzzle game makes you feel like a genius. Everything you do feels almost like you’re cheating, discovering something that those stupid developers (god!) must’ve missed. The solutions are always just out of reach, but you’re the one who figures out how to get there, not some tutorial or conveniently revealed solution. Remember the first time you realized that objects in Portal maintained momentum while traveling through portals, then proceeded to soar to some previously unreachable platform? It’s that, over and over again. It’s reaching the exit and screaming “FUCK YOU GAME, I OWN YOU.”

Magrunner: Dark Pulse is a rewarding, if brutally difficult, puzzle game that makes you feel smart without being patronizing. 

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From the trailer alone, Magrunner seems like a shameless rip-off of Valve’s iconic Portal series. There are high tech minimalist “test” chambers, a dual color object manipulation mechanic, and lots of physics puzzles. It doesn’t seem to have the same sense of humor or whimsy as Portal 2, instead opting for a loving nod towards the Cthulhu mythos. There’s no third-person action or Mirror’s Edge-esque free-running, even if the screenshots show it. It doesn’t look especially unique on the surface. 

Magrunner is far more than just Portal: Elder Gods TC though . As its title suggests, Magrunner is all about magnetism. You charge different objects in the environment (be they nodes on the ground, platforms, or cubes) with either a red or green charge. Similar colors attract, opposites repulse. That’s it. While it seems like a pretty basic mechanic, where Magrunner shines is how far Frogwares takes it.

For example, one of the early levels tasks you with jumping up on a platform that’s just out of your reach, even if you grab two nearby blocks and stack them on top of each other. But if you give the bottom block a red charge, then give the one you’re standing on a green charge they repel each other, sending you high enough to jump onto the platform. There are no on screen prompts to instruct you in this, nor is there a narrator who is feeding you tips; there are just two blocks and a ledge. You’re the one figuring it out, not the game. It’s a sublime moment that’s up there with the best in Portal 2.

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That’s only the icing on the neon lit Magrunner cake. Some of the later puzzles can be I-should-probably-go-sleep-on-this hard. The complete lack of instruction, restrained to subtle environmental cues such as “Hey, this thing is here, you should probably use it somehow,” could be pretty off-putting for those who aren’t well-versed in this type of object-manipulation puzzler. Unlike Portal 2, Magrunner never really escapes the ‘puzzle room’ archetype, even when it tries to disguise it with long dark hallways or otherworldly space-scapes. The devilishly simple puzzles are front and center for the whole twisted experience.

Special mention goes to the inclusion of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos in the game. The people at Frogwares must be up to some dark shit over there in France, because they obviously know their Elder Gods. Once the “actual” plot of the game kicks in around level ten, things take a turn for the spooky and disturbing, with scaly monsters stalking you from the shadows and bizarre scrawlings covering the once pristine white walls. It’s rare for a puzzle game to tread into the horror category, but there were definite moments in Magrunner that had me looking over my shoulder. Also, whoever decided to include the Dark Young in the game is my new best friend; they just don’t know it yet. If you’re a fan of the Mythos, there’s plenty here to giggle over.

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Despite the apathetic brutality of the eldritch antagonists, the puzzles themselves never feel unfair or completely out of left field. Once a mechanic is introduced with a new puzzle it’s then regularly referred to, creating a stable of ways to manipulate the environment based entirely on red and green charges. Later you get access to a portable charge point that you can fire onto practically any surface, which adds another layer of complexity, but you never have to manage more than just the two basic ideas of attraction and repulsion. It reminds me a lot of the simplicity of the original Portal, before the various gels of the sequel showed up.

It’s this simplicity that is core to the feeling of satisfaction in the game. Much like a carpenter who builds a house with little more than their own hands and a set of simple tools, solving puzzles in Magrunner always feels like a feat of improvisation. When I reached the exit of some of the more devious rooms I couldn’t help but turn around and take a screenshot of the aftermath, a proud moment of “Look ma, I did that!” Sure, the designers were watching over me like a parent, subtly guiding me towards the exit, but I was the one who took the steps.

Clearing a puzzle room in Magrunner made me feel proud. It’s rare for a game to inspire that kind of feeling. It’s the sign of a good puzzle game.

Pixels or Death gives Magrunner: Dark Pulse 4 out of 5 stars. It’s not genre transforming, but it’s damn good at what it does.