Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Magrunner: Dark Pulse (PC, 2013, Ukraine): Portal+Cthulhu=Fun!
November 8, 2013, 2:49 am
Filed under: Magrunner: Dark Pulse (PC, 2013, Ukraine)

I just don’t get it. You know how you’ll see a trailer (or some alpha gameplay or whatever) for some new, small-scale title on Youtube. And it looks very similar to that other AAA game you really love, but you still get all excited about it? You think, ‘Oh God. It looks a lot like so-and-so. I would so play that.’

But then there’s that annoying 12-year-old brat who comments: “FAIL! This is just ripping off (fill-in-the-blank-AAA-game). Ripoff! Ripoff!”

Trolls. But seriously, what’s the point? Do these prepubescent irritants seriously want the production of a game ceased just because it might resemble or mirror something else? Or do they just want the world to know that they’re smart enough to see the resemblance? My thought is always this: Who gives a shit? If some developer wants to create a new game, and it bears great resemblance to some previous title that I already hold dear, WHY THE HELL NOT? It doesn’t sully the previous game in any way. It doesn’t ruin the original experience. I just don’t get it. Would you seriously NOT have that developer release a game that may be great fun to play, regardless of whether it mimics or emulates an existing title in some way? I’ve never, ever in my life understood that. (And let’s not even get started on whether or not anything, anywhere is actually original or not. Multiple philosophers have argued there really is no such reality.)

Of course, what I’m talking about is an homage. To me, it’s kind of a shame that the word homage has been reduced to a fancy, derisive French term for ripoff. More accurately, it connotes a respect, an admiration, even a reverence toward a predecessor. Ideally, an homage pays tribute to an original idea or artifact that came before it, recognizing it as an important influence, while also attempting to expand on that original work. An homage, above all else, has honorable intentions.

Unfortunately, the reality is that most homages—at least in the videogame universe—aren’t as good (or effective or interesting or beautiful) as their predecessors. So, when most reviewers cheekily call “Magrunner: Dark Pulse” a “Portal-homage,” you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking it wasn’t worth your time.

But you’d be dead wrong.

Without question, a game like “Magrunner” wouldn’t exist if “Portal” had never materialized on our hard drives, and this is a fact that 3 a.m. Games, the Ukrainian developers, admit quite openly. But the real equation behind “Magrunner” involves more than just Portal-esque first-person puzzles. In addition to running around like a lab rat solving brain-twisting physical challenges, you also eventually have to save the world from the planet-eating, mythical anti-God known as Cthulhu. Yes, you heard right: Portal + Cthulhu = Fun!

On the surface, it seems the disparate narrative elements in “Magrunner” would never work. But playing it proves that these story pieces meld together seamlessly into an intriguing narrative that propels gameplay perfectly. In the year 2050, you play as Dax Ward. Dax is a brilliant, 18-year-old robotics genius (who, quite honestly, looks a little bit like a younger Cole MacGrath from the first “Infamous” game). Dax’s best friend is his little robotic dog, Newton, that he built as a young child. An orphan, Dax’s parents died in a mysterious accident when he was very young. For most of his life, Dax has been raised by Gamaji, a like-minded genius and a true surrogate father-figure. But Gamaji is also a “mutant” who has six arms (and he’s a killer typist). The introductory narrative hints at the fact that in the future, mutants like Gamaji are somewhat commonplace (and they may be the next evolution of humankind), but society at large discriminates against them and views them as subhumans. Anyway, it made sense that Gamaji would raise Dax upon the death of his parents; Gamaji was a close friend of the family and a kind of live-in employee. Dax’s parents were very accepting of Gamaji as a mutant, and Dax’s parents are portrayed as progressive, welcoming people who died before their time.

Another character in the game, Kram Gruckezber, is a Steve-Jobs-via-Bill-Gates Zillionaire with a bigger than life personality and an even bigger mouth. He is the developer of several technologies that have revolutionized our world. First was the creation of LifeNET—a kind of social-media-network-on-steroids that has figuratively melded the entire planet into one whole; people plug directly into LifeNET, and most individuals have, in a way, become enslaved by it. Not in a literal way, of course, but we essentially live our entire conscious and unconscious lives connected to LifeNET, and the thought of not having it would be like plunging into another Dark Age. (Is that foreshadowing I see?)

Beyond LifeNET, Gruckezber’s latest development is magnetic technology—which he calls “Magtech.” It is a transformative science that will change the way we interact with our planet, how we get our energy, and even how far into space we will be able to travel. As the game opens, Gruckezber, who is a PR heavyweight, has announced a grand, global competition where seven individuals will be chosen as “test subjects” in a deep space exploration program. The selected individuals—called Gruckezber’s “Magrunners”—will be the best and brightest and strongest, and they will compete in solving puzzles in a massive testing facility using Mag Gloves. (Sound familiar yet?)

Gamaji is a little worried when Dax says he wants to enter the contest and become one of the “Seven,” but he knows in his heart that Dax will succeed. So Gamaji helps him build his own custom Mag Glove and enters him into the contest. Dax knows he is the underdog; others in the contest have all had certain advantages, such as professional trainers in using Magtech and also tons of cash for better, more powerful and precise Mag Gloves. But with his sheer smarts and scrappy attitude, Dax believes he has a real chance.

After the graphic-novel-like introduction (covering the backstory I just mentioned),the game opens in the first test chamber, essentially. The first 15 minutes of the game provide you with simplistic puzzles that act as tutorials helping you to understand how Magtech works. Basically, using the glove, you charge objects in the test environment with either a positive or negative polarity (to attract or repel each other—and the objects conveniently change color to indicate the polarity). This is how the puzzles are solved—you push and pull crates (and even propel yourself) through the chambers to reach platforms, press buttons, break glass barriers, open doors…all that “Portal” stuff you’ve come to love. It all feels very familiar, but not in a bad way.

Unlike “Portal” however, during the game a number of characters appear as mini-holograms (that hover directly above your Mag Glove on your right hand) to talk to you, provide guidance, or to update you on other contestants’ progress. (You never see any of the other contestants as they are making their way through the maze of test chambers.) For example, six-armed Gamaji has a direct link to you throughout the game, and he hacks into Gruckezber’s servers and provides you with some insider information. Additionally, Kram Gruckezber himself appears from time to time, as well as a bitchy independent reporter named Cassandra, who (armed with her own hovercam) is covering the competition for LifeNET (and who thinks Dax doesn’t stand a chance of winning since he is an underdog). Lastly, an enigmatic, sniveling, rigid man named Xander, who is Gruckezber’s main engineer and who designed and built the testing facility, appears on the Mag Glove’s commlink from time to time. He is directly overseeing the competition and making sure the facility is performing properly. From the get-go, Dax feels that there’s something not right about Xander. Oh, is he ever correct.

Of course, the game wouldn’t be a game if things didn’t eventually go wrong. First, there are just some strange hiccups in the facility’s system—as you enter the eighth or ninth room, the lights go out, the place momentarily powers down, everyone loses communication. A worried Gruckezber shows up on the commlink asking Xander what the hell is going on. Gruckezber says he’s got several high-stakes Magtech financiers in a special room watching the competition, and that these malfunctions must cease. Xander hems and haws, but basically reassures him and all the contestants that these are temporary glitches. (Gamaji chimes in covertly on a closed communication channel to let you know that at the moment of the blackout, it looked like there was an entire separate data stream interfering from somewhere.) Then, as Xander predicted, the competition returns to normal…for a while. Dax continues puzzling his way through one chamber at a time, as the puzzle complexity increases and new mechanics are introduced. (One of those mechanics, eventually, is the addition of a hologram Newton [Dax’s little robotic dog, complete with wagging tail and floppy ears] which can be “shot” onto any flat surface to create an extra magnetic point wherever you choose—in other words, you end up seeing a lot of little hologram robotic red and green dogs sticking to walls and ceilings, and it is all perfectly cute.)

Much like in Portal, the game gets interesting when the fourth-wall (of the narrative and the testing facility) is finally broken. In “Magrunner” that happens when you enter the tenth or so testing chamber—to see a hideous, man-sized, scaly monster dragging one of the other contestants (who is clearly dead) across the sterile white floor and leaving a massive blood smear behind. As soon as Dax spots this, the monster and his prey disappear through a door. Dax’s response, basically, is: “What the hell? Did I just see what I thought I saw?” Of course, the trail of blood left behind means that, yes, it was all very real. Uh-oh.

He summons Gamaji through the communication link to seek reassurance and explain what he just witnessed. But Gamaji has no answers and is as confused as Dax. Gruckezber and Xander don’t respond to his hail at all. So Dax continues forward, now with his mind toward either finding out what the hell is going on, or to just escape the facility intact. The next few test chambers proceed normally, but then all hell breaks loose, quite literally. Entering the fifteenth (or so) testing room, you find that it has been torn asunder. Pieces of it are on fire, and a massive crack has appeared in the wall, high above and near the ceiling. Electrical cables, tubes, and other wires have been exposed behind the walls. Sparks are flying. There are also strange symbols and messages scrawled on various surfaces—in blood? Of course, the immediate comparison is the moment in “Portal” when Chell peeks behind one of the white wall tiles to see there is another world beyond the Aperture science center. It’s moments like these where, as a gamer, you either cry foul because it is so derivative (and you happen to be one of those 12-year-old trolls on Youtube). Or you run with it and see where it’s going. In the case of “Magrunner,” sticking with the game is recommended regardless of how derivative it may seem.

Using the skills you’ve learned thus far, you manage your way through the wrecked room and enter the crack in the wall. You travel through a hastily dug tunnel of earth, and you enter what appears to be an alternate-reality version of another testing chamber. Only instead of gleaming white surfaces with pretty neon accents, the test chamber is decayed, broken, warped; it is covered in dirt, rust, and moss. Busted pipes, chains, metal grates, and barrels litter the scene. The floor is covered in slimy water. Everything is very dark. From here on out, pretty much every testing chamber you encounter will become grittier, nastier, darker, and further removed from reality. The introduction of this increasingly bizarre and dangerous alternate reality is extremely well done. The rooms gradually become more and more strange, more cavernous in size (to the point of almost inducing vertigo), and more difficult to navigate. Dax cries out to Gamaji, asking him for help, looking for guidance. Though you can communicate with him fine, Gamaji says he can no longer find you on his map—essentially, you have disappeared off the radar. He quickly begins hacking Gruckezber’s computer servers to find alternate maps or some other way to help guide you. The only thing for Dax to do is move forward, continuing to puzzle his way to an exit…hopefully.

As your world has turned upside down, apparently something serious is happening topside as well: A disheveled and worried Gruckezber appears on the commlink, and apparently “some thing” is trying to get inside the room where he and the financiers have holed up. Cassandra, the intrepid reporter, is hiding in some other room somewhere, and she says she has looked out the window at the sky: “It looked strange. The light was…wrong. I’m scared.” Gamaji pops up to tell you that the news is apparently reporting that people are running rampant through the streets and committing acts of violence. He says he thinks it has something to do with LifeNET being hacked or controlled by…something.

So, what exactly has happened? If you plan on playing the game, you may want to stop reading at this point. But narratively speaking, this is where “Magrunner” asks you to take a monster-sized leap of faith: About halfway through the game, Xander (the awkward engineer and Gruckezber’s top man) appears on your commlink. He is clearly mad, nuts, bonkers, playing with half a deck, foaming at the mouth. (And from here on out, whenever he pops up on the hologram commlink, his appearance becomes more and more bizarre, to the point where his shirt is ripped off, he is covered in massive body tattoos, blood, you name it, totally cuckoo.) Anyway, Xander has apparently planned this entire thing from the beginning. The seven “Magrunners” were actually seven sacrifices that needed to be offered up so that the “old demons” may finally return to earth—in other words, that old chestnut Cthulhu and his minions. (That reminds me, I’ve got “Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth” installed on my 3D laptop, with a corrupted savegame. I’m not even halfway through it. Hmmmm.) Anyway, as the “Magrunners” have been killed off one at a time, Cthulhu has been gaining a foothold in our world. Time, as we know it, is coming to a very ugly end. The test chambers continue to grow in sheer bizarreness, including frozen images—almost like statues—of massive creatures who appear to be trying to break into our world. (These, I just have to say, are super creepy and HUGE and so fucking cool.) Also, a few more of those scaly, man-sized monsters (who are just some of Cthulhu’s minions) give chase here and there through some of the maps. Of course, Dax has no weapon, so he simply needs to puzzle-solve his way out of any jams he finds himself in.

And if you thought the game was asking you to take a narrative leap of faith before, well you just wait: As the name Cthulhu rises to the surface, Gamaji starts remembering some interesting tidbits about your parents. He tells you they were involved in some weird cult shit, apparently, when Dax was very young. Gamaji didn’t know much about it, but that cult shit may have actually been part of the reason for their untimely “accident.” Anyway, as it turns out, Dax learns (through this “feeling” he increasingly has and also through some strange, truncated visions as he travels deeper and deeper into the maze of puzzle-rooms) that he is a reincarnation of the leader of some ancient mages known as The Seven, who were involved somehow in helping to keep Cthulhu under control and away from our world. (Or something like that. Frankly, like so many of these games, just as the gameplay itself becomes more and more difficult and challenging, the story becomes more and more obtuse and tangled, and by the end of it all, my brain is a pile of mush. But I’m at least about 90% right here…maybe.)

Suffice to say, at about the three-quarters point, things truly go off the rails: Appropriately, Dax enters a portal and leaves the earth entirely. He finds himself suspended in deep space, with no worldly idea of how he is actually able to breathe, and facing increasingly complex puzzles hanging in the middle of the universe. Surrounded by stars and planets, with lightening flashing here and there, Dax sees in the background of the void a massive dark shadow in the shape of Cthulhu himself. A long, drawn-out whispery-groan is heard everywhere: “Cthulhuuuuu…” With each puzzle “space,” Dax is getting closer and closer to meeting the ancient evil one. (Also in the background is little old earth, which is slowly being covered in a dark, liquid like shadow.)

Just because I’ve spent this much time discussing the neato story here, I’ll divulge the ultimate ending. SO THIS IS THE REAL SPOILER, DEAR READER: Kooky Xander thinks that Dax will be the final sacrifice which will allow Cthulhu to reign over our world—this was his plan all along. But Dax has a different plan. At the right moment (the final puzzle in the game of course), Dax sacrifices himself by “becoming one” with the evil Anti-God, instead of allowing himself to be killed. At the very end, we see Gamaji in his home, still desperately trying to contact Dax. And suddenly, a hologram of Dax appears on Gamaji’s console. Dax tells Gamaji that he has to stay with Cthulhu, to become one with him. And as long as he does, Cthulhu will not be able to enter our world. A short epilogue explains that this is the last Gamaji ever heard of Dax, and while he desperately wishes he could see Dax one last time, he knows that if Dax were to return, he’d be bringing the end of the world back with him. The end result of this near-catastrophe has actually brought a kind of new primitive, simple life on earth. LifeNET, and most all other technologies, have been irreparably damaged and discarded. People are living in tents, communing in the streets, growing their own food, and getting back to basics the hard way. Cool stuff.

With such a clear, strong narrative, it’s no surprise that the gameplay itself is equally straightforward. Most of the time, the game gives you all of the tools you need to succeed. Aiming with the Mag Glove is accurate with mouse or a 360 gamepad (which it natively supports); like Chell in “Portal,” Dax can fall from extreme heights and not receive damage. However, falling into an abyss (of which there are many later in the game) will mean game over. There are one-hit-kill turrets strategically placed into some of the test chambers (again, just like that other game), but they don’t have cheeky personalities like their predecessors do. There is no GlaDos equivalent here either. In fact, the game is generally quite straight-faced (other than a few moments in the very beginning) and plays very seriously—something which I always appreciate.

Some reviewers have complained about difficulty spikes in the game which seem overwhelming or misplaced. They also say there are pacing problems. On this point, I do have to agree; I remember a few points where suddenly I felt I was no longer playing the same game, and I had no idea what to do or how to proceed. It is easy to spend 45 minutes staring at the screen and pondering how to traverse a deadly room only to have to go look up a walkthrough (which I did on three separate occasions). You can encounter some puzzles which don’t logically follow upon the skills you have already accrued, which points to poor development (in my opinion); for instance, in one room, I had to perfectly position the six sides of a floating cube in order to make another platform accessible in another part of the test chamber that I could not directly see. It’s the sort of thing that, after looking up the solution, you say to yourself: “How can anyone ever really figure that out? And how is any of that actually connected? I mean, come on!” Very late on in the game, there are puzzles that are not really puzzles, but are more like mechanics that have been implemented to simply test your patience and willingness to endure. One of these involves a series of a dozen or so platforms, side-by-side, which you must slowly raise one at a time using positive and negative polarities until they have all reached a certain height. Not tricky or clever, just supremely irritating and trivial-feeling—this single maneuver alone could easily take 30 minutes or more. While the game did not frequently come to a screeching halt this way, there were a few moments where the fun stalled for me.

Made in Unreal 3, the look of the game, overall, is highly polished. The environments, especially, convey the perfect atmosphere. Some of the later puzzle chambers are immense, cavernous; several of these areas have small platforms that levitate and rotate in massive circles (powered through magnetization) that you must jump onto at precise moments, sometimes forcing you to free-fall through incredible amounts of empty space before landing safely—a chilling experience. The character models look fine too, but the animations of both humans and monsters is stiff, awkward, puppet-like (par for the course, considering the game’s origins). The voices, on the other hand, are far above average (keeping that same point of origin in mind). The actors voicing the two leads, Dax and Gamaji (Brian Hanford and Nick Brimble, respectively), do a bang-up job in making us believe these characters are real and really care for one another.

If you can’t tell, I am recommending this game without any serious reservations. I’m a bit of old-schooler in this respect, but I collect videogames, and I prefer having shelf copies of titles when possible. Lucky for me, “Magrunner” was published in a retail box (with a manual and everything, oh-la-la!)—I got mine on Amazon UK (since the retail box didn’t seem to be available in the U.S.). But it is also playable as a download title on Steam and other PC game sellers. It is available for consoles too (XBLA and PSN), and I would imagine it fairs perfectly well in those environments (though it may not be as much of a looker on an older console).  When I come across underdog, derivative games like this that are engaging and immersive and just plain fun…well, this is what I live for.