As I stare across the void of space, deep into the glowing eyes of Lord Cthulhu beckoning in the distance, tentacled statues alarmingly crawling out from the walls, asteroids spinning across my vision making a mockery of the gravity that is otherwise holding me down, I begin to wonder when it all became quite so surreal. Only a few hours ago I was trapped in an overly familiar bleached-white metallic testing facility, generic physics altering gun in hand, solving traditional puzzles involving too many cubes. A few hours ago I may as well have been playing Portal, only now - as an elephantine monster charges towards me, armed with razor tusks and a frightening array of spiked trunks - I’m not so sure.
There is a real sense that approximately halfway through development the team at Frogwares suddenly realised that they were not just making an homage to their favourite game, but rather a clone. Grabbing the nearest literature to hand they wrestled with their creation and turned it into an altogether different beast, a Jekyll and Hyde creation with a well-dressed gentlemanly beginning that splits in the middle to form a raving loon, spewing freakish monsters from its warped acid mouth. The work perhaps of a schizophrenic, one side with a calm love for the wit and genius of Valve’s classic, the other staying up late obsessively slobbering over the maniacal works of H.P. Lovecraft.
If that sounds like the recipe for instant success, then you may wish to hold off the praise until you have tangled with the gameplay or been completely bamboozled by the nonsensical attempt at a plot. The basic premise is that the playable hero of the game, a child prodigy named Dax, has entered into a competition to be the first of a new generation of space pioneers investigating a cheaper, cleaner form of energy powered by magnets. For some rather tenuous reason this means that Dax must navigate a testing facility rammed full of conveniently placed magnetic devices to prove his worth.
The game spends a hilariously long time filling in the details of this paper-thin plot, hinting at a world run by a globe-dominating company called the Gruckezber Corporation, a completely unsubtle nod towards the future of Facebook (seriously - rearrange the letters…), mixed with a bubbling undertow of mutant rebellion. Of course this is all becomes completely irrelevant once you enter the testing chambers and start tangling with polarised objects. In these bleached-white walls it is just you, your polarising magnet gun, and a series of potentially magnetic objects.
Play continues much as it does in Portal (or most other first-person puzzle games), the player enters a testing area, scans the area for exits or useful artefacts and then attempts to use logic or good old-fashioned trial and error to reach the next room. In Magrunner your single piece of equipment is the Magtech glove: with a hit of either the left or right trigger you can shoot very specific objects to apply charge. These objects interact with each other in a predictable manner, attracting or repelling as they come into contact. Only not in a way you would predict at first. Betraying all that we ever learnt in basic physics: magnets of the same polarity will attract one another, opposites repel.
The resultant gameplay evolves from slowly dragging lifts around using these magnets to flinging your own body from boxes that violently repel each other once charged. At first it is a strange and confusing experience but, as with Portal, once the concept is firmly lodged in the player’s mind it becomes second nature. Rooms slowly mould into fields of magnetic charge, ripe for manipulation. This is further helped by a simple button press which illuminates all the charged objects and their field of interactivity, creating delightful bubbles and columns of light, indicating to the player where each charged object may influence another.
Yet this form of puzzle never has the charm or immediacy of Valve’s classic, or indeed many of the more recent first person puzzlers such as Q.U.B.E or Antichamber. Since all the magnets are locked down to specific objects the solutions remain static and unambiguous and there is little room for divergence or alternative interpretation. Virtually every puzzle requires the player to consider how and why the developer created the problem, rather than playing with the physics engine to solve it yourself in a more inspirational way. Later in the game the Magtech glove is upgraded to create bizarre magnetic nanoparticles which combine together into the form of Dax’s doggie companion (yes, it is as weird as that sounds), and this waggy friend can be fired onto any surface to create a magnetic point. Here the gameplay does become more interesting, however even then it still feels bogged down in its own ideas. Experimentation with these powers often leads to frustration or painful death rather than any discovery.
There is also a heavy emphasis on first-person platforming, a genre that very few video games ever succeed in. Too often the player is tasked with jumping onto moving platforms, judging where their invisible feet may land, or attempting to fling themselves from flying boxes onto tiny surfaces. Magrunner firmly aligns itself with the hardcore and old-school end of first-person gameplay with no grasping mechanics to claw up onto ledges or recover from slight misjudgements. The result, particularly for the inexperienced in this form of gameplay, is too often being thrown back to the start of a puzzle or worse into death and painful reloading sequences.
It’s a weary first few hours, filled with an alarming amount of loading screens splitting every single tiny challenge. Then completely out of the blue: all hell breaks loose. Literally. Magrunner is at its best when it is completely barking-bonkers-stark-raving mad. The test rooms slowly degrade into infernal pits, replete with acidic floors and monstrous statues protruding from the walls. It is a fantastic and surreal experience and one that the game manages to pull off surprisingly well, with Dax and Gamaji, his mutant adopted father, attempting to comprehend the insanity around them leaving you to stare at the screen completely dumbfounded.
Somehow, despite the scenery changes, the gameplay remains stagnant yet, as the walls crumble down and you are flung into the void, these magnets become a grounding device in a world quickly disintegrating. Swinging magnetic platforms become magical roller coasters as you zip around space, avoiding monsters and eternal pits of damnation. It is a hilarious and at the same time deeply disturbing experience. Sadly, considering all the madness that has come before it, the ending feels rather tepid and unimpressive, limping rather than exploding into the credits.
Still, there is enough content in Magrunner: Dark Pulse to keep players entertained for around eight or so hours. With its relatively long length and impressive production values it manages to eschew its budget release status, only at certain times (such as the bizarrely non-existent death animations) revealing its cheaper origins. Magrunner is certainly far from perfect, with a gameplay mechanic that feels both unimaginative and restrictive, but it is a worthy addition for fans of first-person puzzle games. When the game wakes up and realises it is not simply another Portal clone it begins to take on its own form, a true testament to what can be achieved if the design team are unshackled from reality and left to their own imagination.