Or: How to Rediscover a Classic without Even Playing It
Sometimes, you need to see the cheap knockoff to appreciate the original.
I picked up Magrunner: Dark Pulse quite by accident. I liked the picture of the main protagonist on the promo images. The problem is of course that the game is played in first person perspective so you never see the protagonist in the first place. Pity really.
In Magrunner, you have a gun. You can fire at things (mostly cubes) and charge them magnetically. They will then attract or repel each other. Use these contraptions to solve puzzles. Does it sound familiar? Of course it does. It is a Portal clone. And, as I can say after playing three quarters of the game, not the very best. You can watch me play the game here. Or read my review of it. Warning: slight spoilers ahead.
There are mainly two problems with it: One is with the graphics, the other with the storyline.
Portal levels have been designed to give you as many hints as possible on how the puzzle has to be solved.
Cause and effect have been clearly labeled. Press a button here, get an action there. In Magrunner, these connections are not as visible. You destroy things and see what happens. That’s all you can do.
Most of the objects in a portal level serve a purpose: either helping you solve the puzzle, guiding you through the level or telling you the story of the game. In Magrunner, we have a lot of objects that seem to convey meaning but actually don’t. There are moments where you try to use something and finally have to realise that it’s just flavour.
The clean look of portal was necessary to help you navigate in 3-D space. McGregor, however, doesn’t do that, especially in the 3rd act. The level design becomes so organic that it is hard to parse. Horizontal and vertical lines become few. There is a lot of structure, a lot of texture (in fact, you can see that already in the header image of this post – there is really a damn lot going on). Green and red flashes over the screen, showing you where the magnetic fields are. The whole sky is turning around you. Orientation becomes difficult, and it doesn’t help that you’re being hunted by monsters and have to react fast in order not to die. As a matter of fact, I got sick after the first three levels of the 3rd act and had to lie down for a few hours.
When the levels aren’t hard to parse you can be sure that the puzzle design is stupid: trying to hit a small platform when jumping down is just not a very interesting challenge.
But does it have a great story? You can’t go wrong with C’thulhu right?
Turns out you can. The combination seems rather forced. The dread that is so common in Lovecraft’s work never appears. You start out somewhere in the future and then, boom, bad things start happening. Things from the deep appear and it is never really explained why. It seems to have something to do with the head scientist of the company who turns out to be a madman. A madman that somehow works at a huge, space-faring mega corporation.
We never experience that, though, you’re being told so. When Portal tells a story through the rooms you pass through, Magrunner tells it through heads that pop-up on your screen and talk to you. It doesn’t help that the acting isn’t that great.
The big reveal can be seen from miles away. But it is drawn out over a complete act. You get morsels of a story as a reward for solving puzzles. Puzzles that become repetitive very fast. Even more so because they don’t drive on the story.
Altogether, MagRunner: Dark Pulse is a nice try. It combines a lot of good elements, but fails to create a coherent whole. It needs more refining and more polish, in order to be a really great game.
It does, however, make me appreciate how well-designed Portal actually is. Sometimes you need that.