The trailer for Magrunner: Dark Pulse suggests an intriguing mixture of both horror and puzzle games, but how much you end up enjoying the title will largely depend on which of those two genres you prefer. If you love horror, but you’re not big on puzzles, then I’m afraid to say that Magrunner probably isn’t the game for you. On the other hand, if you enjoy a good puzzle now and then, you may want to continue reading.
The protagonist of the game is Dax Ward, a young man who has entered a competition of sorts, alongside six others. The competition is a training program being run by a massive futuristic tech corporation, and those who succeed will be offered a position with the company in their space exploration division.
The actual gameplay takes place in a first-person perspective, much like Portal, which Magrunner: Dark Pulse naturally invites comparisons to. Both take place in scientifically designed obstacle courses, both have characters who monitor your actions as you play, both have a non-lethal “gun” that you use to solve puzzles, and both have seemingly harmless tests of your abilities that quickly take a much more lethal detour.
That lethal detour never quite feels lethal enough, though, which is easily the biggest problem with this title. For a game with crashing elevators, characters being mauled by evil-looking alien creatures, and the player character at one point screaming, “Why are you trying to murder us?”– all of which can be found in the trailer – Magrunner: Dark Pulse is sadly low on genuine thrills. There were a couple of somewhat memorable scenes — and one section that required the use of some unconventional lighting was especially appreciated as a change of scenery – but the game ultimately fell short in this area.
I felt that the story and dialogue could have used some improvements as well. There’s a lot of awkward exposition spoken by the player character, and the story arguably has too many characters and too many loose ends. Admittedly, as its gameplay was already reminding me of Portal, the game had a lot to live up to in the writing department, which perhaps colored my judgement more than it would have with some random first-person shooter. Still, I’d keep your expectations in check.
Thankfully, the rest of the presentation fairs much better. The score is effectively tense — even if it doesn’t have much from the story to work with — and the art direction is also well done. I especially enjoyed the brightly colored pristine metal and glass of the opening areas, and the rather bizarre third act of the game. Less enjoyable for me personally was the underbelly of the complex after things started to go south, but I’ve always preferred a “Shiny Happy People” art style in my video games, and that wouldn’t have worked there. Nonetheless, I definitely liked the look of the game. The only weak element here would have to be the monsters themselves, as they’re far from frightening, especially when viewed up close.
If you can look past the uneven story and lack of scary monsters, there’s a fairly good puzzle game to be found underneath. The designers did a good job of making small adjustments to the magnet-themed gameplay throughout, and introduced new obstacles and tools at a nice pace.
The gameplay is centered around the player character using a magtech “gun” to alter the magnetic properties of various boxes and platforms. Just as in real life, matching polarities will attract, while opposite polarities will repel; often with enough force to activate buttons, break glass, disrupt forcefields, or propel the player character great distances.
Some of the puzzles can get pretty complicated, so it was nice to see that the developers added a button to toggle a visualization of the invisible magnetic fields on and off. It’s especially useful as the puzzles become considerably more complex, but it’s also nice to have early on in order to help you get a better understanding of the basic gameplay mechanics.
After the initial levels, though, there is very little in the way of hand-holding, for better or for worse. Sometimes a somewhat simple puzzle will introduce you to a new game mechanic, but other times you might just have to experiment with everything in the room until you stumble into what the game wants. For me, much of the game felt like equal parts, “Ah, I see what to do!” and, “Well, how the hell was I supposed to know to do that?” The fulfilling and the frustrating can both be found in Magrunner: Dark Pulse, but I’d take that any day over a puzzle game that was never puzzling.
Two more wins for Magrunner: Dark Pulse come in the form of its price and length. I was actually quite surprised by the length of the game, which felt a fair bit longer than the original Portal. And the game is priced at just ten dollars, which certainly makes some of its shortcomings a little easier to overlook.
Overall, Magrunner: Dark Pulse is a decent-sized fish in a small pond. The first-person puzzle genre is still relatively new, and there really aren’t a lot of options for people who enjoy these games. The story and the gameplay might be polar opposites when it comes to quality, but I would say that my experience with the game was more positive than negative. If you enjoy the genre, there’s a good chance that you’ll be attracted to Magrunner: Dark Pulse. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to stop this review before I write another magnet pun.
This review is based on the Xbox Live Arcade version of the game, which we were provided with.