Magrunner: Dark Pulse
On the surface, Magrunner: Dark Pulse simply looks like a poor man’s Portal. Portal with magnets, really. But that analogy wouldn’t be fair. Even though it takes many cues from Portal in level design, and basically copies its UI, Magrunner comes into its own as it progresses. It takes place a dreary future where everyone is connected 24/7 to LifeNET, and have given up their privacy in favor of constant connection to everyone everywhere. LifeNET was developed by Mag-tech, the mandatory dystopian mega-corporation that essentially governs everyone’s lives. Well, that all seems eerily relevant, thinking back on last month’s scandal.
“This beckons for some sort of treatment in the game, considering the increasingly monitored world we live in, and the merging of entertainment and news.”That’s all discarded, though, for a far more banal story involving the evocation of Cthulu. Maybe it would have been too simple to expect a critique of the Information Age, but it feels like a missed opportunity to incorporate some tough questions that are extremely relevant at the moment. Particularly in the light of the last month’s NSA scandal, this would have been the perfect moment. For example, one of supporting characters, Cassandra, a journalist, says that the media will be broadcasting the first 24 hours of the experiment live, and have interviews with the participants. This beckons for some sort of treatment in the game, considering the increasingly monitored world we live in, and the merging of entertainment and news.
At the beginning of the game, we learn that Mag-tech are researching the possibilities of extending man’s reach in space. For this purpose, they have selected seven candidates for space travel, called Magrunners, from the populace, who are to venture through a series of test chambers over a period of three months, using the power of magnetism. One these Magrunners is Dax Ward, an orphan raised by the mutant Gamaji, and the protagonist of the game.
The similarities to Portal are evident from the moment you enter the first test chamber. However, instead of a portal gun, you have a Magtech glove, which allows you to charge different objects in the chamber, making them glow with either a green or red hue. Providing they are within proximity of each other they then either repel or attract one another In the beginning, the tasks are simple. For example, you have to propel yourself to a platform above using two boxes. So you give them different charges, leading one of them to shoot upwards, preferably with you standing on top of it. Over time, they grow far more complex and will have you managing dozens of charged objects, trying feebly to get to the end.
Unlike Portal, though, it never feels like you’re experimenting. The fun part in that game was often to simply shoot portals at random place, and then seeing what works. Even when you failed, it was entertaining. Here, there’s the same joy of experimenting and failing, since you’re usually presented with significantly more elaborate setups that you’ll recreate whenever you inevitably perish. It’s also difficult to figure out how exactly the magnetic fields of different objects affect each other, even though it’s possible to view these fields at the press of a button. Often, you find yourself knowing exactly what you’re supposed to do, but the damn magnets just won’t allow you to do it.
About halfway through the game you acquire “Newton”, a robot puppy that you shoot onto plane surfaces with either charge, to try and use it to affect the magnetic fields. It only really serves to make the puzzle-solving easier at best, which is highly needed, or to make it more tedious, as on multiple occasions you simply have to place a long line of “Newtons” to propel a platform forward.
“Slowly and gradually it breaks down, creating huge, dangerous chasms. It’s a great visualization of the horror that Dax experiences”The beginning of the game is where it feels most coherent. The intro and the first twenty minutes of play hint that the game will be about the dystopian setting it takes place in, but after one of the Magrunners is killed by some horrifying fish-like monster it’s a slow descent into Cthulu-land. Mind you, that wouldn’t necessarily have been a bad decision, but it feels out of place here. The creator of the testing chambers is a man named Xander, and from the start there’s something fishy about him. Predictably, he’s actually involved with an ancient cult and the whole facility is designed around this.
The way the facility is deconstructed over the course of the game is a strong point. The first chambers are very sleek, with a focus on black and white hues. Slowly and gradually it breaks down, creating huge, dangerous chasms. It’s a great visualization of the horror that Dax experiences as his beliefs about the testing facility also begin to crumble, and he sees it for what it truly is. It’s especially creepy when you first venture down into the decrepit, ancient parts of the facility. In the sleek, well-lit above you felt safe from the monsters. Now, in the dark underbelly, you don’t feel safe anymore.
The sound design also contributes to this. As you’re navigating through a flooded level, a sewer almost, there’s a terrifying sound of water trickling. Combined with the knowledge that in the water below, whatever killed that other guy is swimming, it creates tension. And at times, it almost feels like a tomb you’re walking through, as ghostly chants fill the air. Even later, one of the monsters appears to take over the communications channel, spouting R’lyehian (Cthulu language) first, and then moving on to cryptic statements in English about the impending doom of humanity. It serves well to relate the mental pressure Dax experiences, as what he thought would be a tough, but relatively straightforward experiment turns into a much more fatal operation.
You’re never in any real danger, unfortunately. It was a bit disappointing that the monsters were revealed so early on. It doesn’t quite generate that feeling of horror creeping up on you when you’ve already seen the monster. After all, fear of the unknown and the unseen is perhaps greater than anything else. When you do encounter monsters that outright attack you, they feel rigid and move slowly. I don’t advocate the inclusion of guns here, that would have been wholly out of place, so maybe Frogwares could have found inspiration in a game such as Amnesia. As it stands, the monsters don’t seem particularly powerful. They seem a bit mindless. So to compensate for this, they could’ve made Dax weaker. Make him have to find creative ways of outrunning his enemies, using magnetism to block their path or whatever. To some extent, that’s what the game does, but it almost always culminates with Dax firing an explosive box into their head.
“Their relationships never really have time to grow, perhaps because Dax never directly interacts with them.”Dax, though, is actually quite interesting. His dead parents are revealed to have had links to the Cthulu cult, and several hints are dropped that he will be an important figure in Cthulu’s return. He’s a weak character, tempted by the Old Ones’ promises. In the end he doesn’t show quite the heroism one would’ve expected from a video game character, and yet they aren’t distinctly villainous either. They are in the murky territory where no one can really say whether he made the right call. But the supporting characters are woefully underdeveloped, and frankly uninteresting. Their relationships never really have time to grow, perhaps because Dax never directly interacts with them. He merely hears their voices over the coms. Particularly jarring is Cassandra, whom Dax has no previous relationship with before the test, and she didn’t exactly treat him respect before that. Yet, for some reason Dax feels compelled to try to save her when she finds herself in danger. Of course he would feel sympathy with people in danger, but why he’d be extra sympathetic with her and not all the others who’ve died during the course of the game doesn’t make any sense.
Ultimately though, what makes Magrunner a mediocre experience is that it feels padded. Halfway through the game, the magnetism mechanics stop being entertaining, but there’s still half a story to tell. The story itself is certainly intriguing, but technological cataclysm leading to unity, by way of Cthulu, makes the whole thing seem unfocused. There’s a message ingrained – we need to make sure our technological growth doesn’t hamper our humanity, doesn’t worsen society – but it’s all too muddled to have any real impact.