Magrunner: Dark Pulse review for PSN, XBLA, PC

Platform: PSN for PS3
Also On: PC, Xbox 360
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developer: Frogwares
Medium: Digital
Players: 1
Online: No

Is Magrunner: Dark Pulse one of the hackiest and most derivative games ever? Or is it a very good mind-bender with great puzzles and a story that’s just flat out crazy? Or is it, somehow, a little of column A and a little of column B? That I can’t figure out which possibility it is even after playing through the game is a sign of something — though what, exactly, that something is, I’m not sure.

In the “hacky/derivative” column, there’s the fact that Magrunner: Dark Pulse is, at its core, a pretty blatant Portal rip-off. I mean, technically, you’re solving puzzles by shooting magnets instead of holes, so it’s not just a reskinned version of Valve’s classic…but at the same time, it looks and plays similarly enough that my wife was able to walk in on me playing it and ask, “Is this another one of those Portal games?”

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Of course, the key difference between the two is that shooting portals around is awesomely fun, whereas Magrunner’s magnets (or pulses, or whatever you want to call them) can, at their worst, be incredibly infuriating. While there’s a lot to be said for requiring players to be precise — especially in a puzzle game such as this — Magrunner is occasionally too demanding, requiring players shoot magnets at the tiniest spaces possible in less-than-optimal circumstances (i.e. while trying to create a whiplash effect without magnetizing the cumbersome box you’re expected to carry on top of a platform that’s not particularly large in the first place). Also, making it so that your portal magnet gun shoots out a stupid little magnetic dog named Newton is really, really not helpful.

The other huge difference between Magrunner and Portal: the latter is brilliantly written, whereas Magrunner is not. It wants to be that, I suspect, but when you you name your villain Kram Gruckezber and you make him the owner of an all-encompassing social media website called Life*Net, it’s a pretty clear sign that the kind of subtle wit that marked Portal probably isn’t your strong suit.

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And yet, despite those complaints, there’s no denying that Magrunner: Dark Pulse does a lot of things right — or, at least, knows how to make things interesting. Take the story, for instance. It starts out seeming like it’s going to be your run-of-the-mill plot about an evil corporation, but it’s not long before that goes flying out the window in favour of some barely coherent (but in a good way!), somewhat insane (also in a good way!) narrative about evil cultists trying to resurrect Cthulhu. Without spoiling too much, the whole thing winds up in outer space. I may not have been able to follow every twist in the story, but, at the very least, there was something refreshingly bonkers about it all.

More importantly, though, there’s the fact that Magrunner’s puzzle’s were enjoyably challenging. Infuriating at times, to be sure, but at their best, they really forced me to think things through. (And, if I’m being honest, I’ll even admit that they drove me to looking up a walkthrough on multiple occasions.) They may not be quite as fun as those in Portal or Portal 2…but really, how many games are?

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And that, in a nutshell, is why Magrunner: Dark Pulse is probably worth playing. It may not come anywhere close to matching the games it’s trying to ape (I didn’t even get into the iffy graphics or the endless loading times between levels), but it least makes a valiant effort in the attempt. That’s not enough to get it up to GOTY material, but it is enough to make it worth playing if you’re in the mood for a well-made puzzle-platformer.

Grade: B+