Platform | Release Date
PC | June 20, 2013
Developed by Frogwares
Published by Focus Home Interactive
When technology meets Cthulhu! Magrunner: Dark Pulse is an action-puzzle game in which technology confronts the Cthulhu Mythos, as imagined by author, H. P. Lovecraft. You are Dax, one of seven Magrunners selected among the elite to participate in MagTech Corporation’s space training program.
Magrunner: Dark Pulse is one of those titles that piqued my interest early on. It looked like an interesting take on the Portal formula with a retro sci-fi aesthetic akin to Blade Runner or the Fifth Element. Add in a bit of ‘Lovecraftian’ lore to the mix, and you have a game that speaks to the fiber of my being. However, I came away with two realizations. I don’t know a damn thing about magnets, and Focus Interactive is trying to do too much.
At its core, Magrunner is about magnetism. You’re character has the ability to positively or negatively charge objects in order to reach the end of a level. Like Portal, the core mechanic is very solid. There were multiple instances of puzzle solving even early on that simultaneously filled me with awe and made me feel more intelligent than I actually am. A particular puzzle that comes to mind has players using magnetic fields through walls in order to grab an object the player couldn’t reach safely. Another had players mimicking how magnetic high speed trains work.
Despite this solid mechanic, I never felt that the game was teaching me concepts that I would be using later on the game. Where the Portal series shines is in the organic way you are taught the game, as well as using environmental clues, textures, lighting, and sound to point you in the right direction or towards the puzzle’s solution. There is rarely a point in the Portal games where the player is stuck in a room for an extended period of time trying to figure out how to solve it.
Magrunner took the teaching approach very differently. After the initial cutscenes you are thrown into the world and are simply expected to “figure it out.” There are tooltips that are displayed via loading scenes, which there are plenty of, but if your computer is built for gaming your levels will load quicker than you can read the tooltip. It also doesn’t help that over the course of the 40 levels I really only recall seeing “you can change the colors in the game” and “you can charge objects with different polarities.” I’ve heard rumors that there are other tooltips that go into more advanced concepts like “efficiency in managing gravity platforms,” but I’m chalking that up to pure speculation.
Speaking of the cutscenes, the story in this game leaves a lot to be desired. I’d almost prefer if it was never factored in. The majority of the story is told between levels with a few expositions that happen via the holographic display on your magtech glove. Simply put, I cared for none of the characters in the game, and I cared for the story even less.
You are part of a space exploration initiative set up by a giant social network “Lifenet” run by a man named “Grukerberg.” If you just mentally face-palmed at the name, you understand my mindset. You are joined by six other participants who are vying for acceptance in the space exploration initiative, and since Lifenet can only take the best people into space they set up a massive “training facility” for you to go through in order to weed out less than stellar (pun intended) candidates.
The information is presented in a strange way and all at once. I was already having a hard time digesting that a social network was taking a step into space exploration. I was confused as to whether this was an estranged version of The Running Man or an actual space qualification exam.
The biggest transgression the story commits is that it didn’t need to be in the game. If the player was tasked to go through these 40 puzzle rooms without a narrative it would still be understood that there are some weird things happening as the rooms slowly crash into the Lovecraftian mythology. It would lead to a better experience as you let players speculate and form their own narrative on what’s happening around them then trying to suggest stale plot lines and ideas that fall flat.
Overall the game feels like a student project, and I don’t mean that as a slight. Like Narbacular Drop (the original student project that turned into Portal), Magrunner displays a lot of promise and a huge amount of potential. It just needed more time in development or the benefit of having an entity like Valve step in and give the game that extra layer of polish that would have put it over the edge.