It’s unfair to hold a game up against the standard set by Portal, but, well, Magrunner hasn’t really left us much choice. The first-person puzzle game might be an underpopulated genre, but it’s a diverse one: encompassing Antichamber’s non-Euclidean charms alongside Quantum Conundrum’s reality shifting gimmickry. Magrunner’s a game about imbuing objects with magnetic charges that attract or repel them from one another – but, central conceit aside, this is a blatant impersonation. Magrunner borrows Portal’s test chamber, all-for-science conceit to excuse the contrivance of its puzzles, and is completely unashamed in bussing you on elevators between rooms in a facility that – gasp – houses dark secrets behind the pristine white panels.
Playing with magnets lacks the physics-defying audacity of thinking with portals, but it makes for some intriguing puzzles all the same. Magrunner’s Mag Glove can fire two colour-coded charges. So objects imbued with a green charge will be irresistibly drawn to one another, but will literally fling themselves across the room to get away from a heathen red-charged object’s magnetic field.
Magrunner’s reliance on launch pads, light tunnels, crates and cubes mean its puzzles feel well-worn and familiar, even though magnetising these objects is a fuzzier, more malleable concept than placing a pair of intra-dimensional wormholes in a room. Press F at any point and you can see the magnetic fields of all objects currently charged: a messy, crackling morass of overlapping forces that behave consistently, if not always predictably. The upshot of this is that we’ve jury-rigged puzzle solutions that seem to defy what the room has in mind: catapulting crates across rooms to make gravitationally assisted touchdowns, for instance, because we couldn’t figure out how to get the damn thing on that floating platform. The game never encourages such experimentation, and often the design of a room will preclude it, but there are times when you make these defiant little subversions all the same.
Fittingly for a game that lets you mess with the fabric of reality, Magrunner’s plot veers off in some positively Lovecraftian directions, a shift that sees the walls of the testing facility drop away and more alien environments take their place. In truth, the latter setting is ill-suited for Magrunner’s systems (its puzzles end up feeling more funnelled even as the environments open out) but the early air of mounting horror offers the kind of atmosphere rarely seen in games of this ilk, though much of this tension is lost when you get a glimpse of Magrunner’s rather mundane attempts to design Lovecraftian, eldritch monstrosities.
Still, Magrunnner’s story is confidently told, and it’s a welcome point of divergence in a game that’s too in thrall to the title that popularised this genre. The Mag Glove’s no less capable of sustaining a game than the Portal Gun – it’s quite possibly better suited to experimental, player-authored solutions. But it needs its own game, not just to be inserted into the framework of another.
Magrunner: Dark Pulse is out now on PC.