Magrunner: Dark Pulse review

Our Verdict

Never-quite-stellar puzzling fare punctured by erratic physics and makework. The scenery is nice, though.

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Magnets! How do they work?! Inquisitive rap artists will only be further confused by Magrunner: Dark Pulse, a firstperson Portal-alike in which the principle puzzle gimmick – magnetising stuff – functions in exactly the way reality doesn't.

In Magrunner, similar charges attract one another and opposite charges repel. You can imbue selected objects with either polarity simply by clicking on them, thanks to a hand-mounted device that can also fire a magnetised robotic dog, enabling you to shunt polarised platforms hither and thither, or surf across test chambers on the back of a suddenly repelled cube.

These test chambers feature as part of an improbable space training program for which you, a plucky street kid named Dax, have been selected along with six others, all decked out in brightly coloured kneepads, spunky hair-dos and visors. If you were told this was the cast of a '90s Saturday morning cartoon called Rad Kidz, you would think nothing was amiss – you even have a robot dog.

But something is amiss. Something ancient and deathless with tentacles and wings and an eternal desire for domination. The rapidity with which the plot veers from its day-glo tween-fic into Lovecraftian otherness is ballsy, but it's never quite sure how seriously to take itself. Some sights and sounds are unsettling, but it ultimately plumps for cartoon horror, and a perplexingly ambivalent finale.

All the same, this provides an enticing canvas for Magrunner's talented artists, who have fun smashing plasticky futurism into abyssal nightmares. What you do in these collapsing arenas, however, isn't nearly as otherwordly; playing with magnets never overturns spatial reality in the exhilarating way of Portal's wormholes, but it does manage to create some tricky problems of procedure as you identify which mechanisms to activate first. One neat puzzle requires you to juggle the polarity of a stack of platforms to shuffle them ever further up a shaft; another – my favourite – has you alternate charges to set three platforms spinning on looped rails, timing their rotations so that you can leap between them as they pass.

Alas, Magrunner doesn't always produce the sort of reliable physics that the puzzles demand. This is occasionally fatal and, worse, led me to mistakenly abandon valid lines of experimentation. Polarised objects sometimes spring off at odd angles for no reason. Some don't react at all and need to be de- and re-magnetised before they wake up and smell the Lorentz force. Depending on the puzzle, an activated field might send a block rocketing into the sky, and at other times just gently nudge them away. It makes the rulebook hard to read.

Even when the physics isn't on the fritz, massaging magnetic fields is finicky, and as the puzzles get larger and larger, the cost of imprecision gets tedious to undo. One exasperating sequence requires you to coax a chain of platforms into the sky, rushing to prop up one end before the other sags, over and over. It's exactly as much fun as trying to pin up several metres of tinsel with one piece of ageing Blu-Tak.

Numerous other puzzles require you to drag a lift upwards in halfmetre increments, and one illadvised late-game invention is to add a time limit by way of a deadly manytendrilled shoggoth, turning trial and error into trial and execution. It's not obvious why a game designer would subject players to this.

Suffer through these aggravations and you'll find a game composed of stolid, workmanlike conundrums, wrapped in rather dashing aesthetics. Magrunner: Dark Pulse is rarely scintillating but conceptually sound – an enigma altogether more earthly than its mythos might suggest.

  • Expect to pay: £15
  • Release: Out now
  • Developer: Frogwares
  • Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
  • Multiplayer None
  • Link www.magrunner-thegame.com
The Verdict
Magrunner: Dark Pulse review

Never-quite-stellar puzzling fare punctured by erratic physics and makework. The scenery is nice, though.