Puzzling (Mis)adventures: Volume 11: Magrunner, Project Temporality
The burgeoning puzzle-platformer genre continues to grow in popularity, in no small part fueled by the phenomenal success of Valve's Portal series. Previous "clones" have included the likes of Quantum Condundrum and Antichamber, and our latest foray for puzzles outside traditional adventure genre lines have revealed two more in the form of Magrunner: Dark Pulse and Project Temporality. Each emulates the Portal formula shamelessly, and although neither quite attains the same story depth or gameplay polish as their inspiration, they both introduce enough clever ideas of their own to make them worthy of attention for all those who enjoy a little action mixed into their problem-solving.
Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Having played through Magrunner: Dark Pulse, I instinctively wonder about the conversation in which the game was originally conceived and I imagine it going one of two ways:
Developer 1: I have a fine idea for a first-person puzzle-platforming game, kind of like Portal.
Developer 2: I want to make a Lovecraftian-themed horror game.
Person Running the Show: We’ve only got the budget for one, so why don’t you see if you can bring those two ideas together.
Developer 1: I have a fine idea for a first-person puzzle-platforming game, kind of like Portal.
Marketing Person: Fantastic. By the way, our market research shows that this Cthulhu fellow is rather popular among our target demographic, so find some way to shoehorn him into the game.
One of these scenarios is obviously a bit more cynical than the other, and while I like to believe that the first scenario is how the game was conceived, I honestly can’t decide if this game is a clumsy but good-natured Lovecraft homage or a marketing ploy to cash in on popular culture’s current obsession with all-things-Cthulhu.
In either event, suffice it to say that Magrunner: Dark Pulse is a Lovecraft-themed first-person puzzle-platformer. At first glance, I thought these themes seemed a little incongruous, but I recently had some seaweed and salt flavored potato chips and they weren’t terrible (although I don’t feel that I ever need to have them again), so there’s no reason this couldn’t work.
The story takes place in the year 2050, when the functioning of society has become literally dependent on a social network called LifeNET, created by the Gruckezber Corporation. This scenario isn’t necessarily presented as dystopian, but I can’t really describe it in any way that doesn’t sound dystopian, so interpret that as you will. Regardless, having successfully subjugated the population of Earth, the Gruckezber Corporation has set its sights on space exploration via some technology they’ve dubbed Magtech. To that end, they’ve created a training program / competition in which select candidates (i.e., Magrunners) can vie for a spot in their space program, which is naturally where you come into the story. Assuming the role of Dax Ward, which sounds suspiciously like what I might have called myself when I was five years old if my parents had let me change my name, your goal is ostensibly to complete this series of training exercises and ultimately become an astronaut.
Having dispensed with the obtuse and yet wafer-thin pretext, the game is essentially a series of obstacle-filled rooms (or test chambers) you negotiate via the game’s puzzle-solving mechanic, namely magnets. The game plays and controls via the traditional first-person (FPS-style) interface, your “weapon” of choice being a Magtech glove. The glove allows you to impart certain objects in the game world with a magnetic charge. Each of the mouse buttons (right and left) corresponds to a different polarity, represented by the color of a magnetized object (by default red and green, although the colors can be changed). As such, the glove can be used to magnetize, demagnetize, or change the polarity of an object. Consequently, any magnetized objects that are within range of one another will react accordingly and objects can then be moved about by manipulating their magnetic fields.
Any objects having the same color (e.g., both red) will be attracted to one another, while any objects having different colors (e.g., red and green) will repel one another. This, of course, is exactly the opposite of how magnetism actually works. Ordinarily, I would be willing to suspend my disbelief and just pretend that they’re magical attracting and repelling colors, but the game repeatedly insists on calling it magnetism. I suppose this was meant to somehow make the game mechanics and puzzle-solving more visually intuitive, but if you’re like me, you’ll spend the first few levels dealing with unintended consequences as you instinctively try to solve puzzles according to the established laws of nature. At any rate, once you’ve purged your brain of your third-grade science lessons, the puzzle-solving rubric works as expected.
For example, the hallmark of any platformer is the titular platform which moves vertically or laterally along a fixed axis. In this case, the platform as well as the base beneath the platform can be magnetized. By charging the base with a “green” polarity and the platform itself with a “red” polarity, the objects will repel one another and the platform will be propelled along its axis, allowing you to reach another location.
The game gradually introduces the various concepts you’ll need to master as you progress (basically the different types of objects you can interact with and how they react to “magnetism”). Much like in Portal, the basic mechanics are relatively simple once you get the hang of them, but the scenarios become more intricate as you progress. Thankfully, there’s a feature that allows you to visibly display the magnetic fields that the objects are projecting. Since the fields are only projected a finite distance (and can take different shapes), this allows you to see whether objects are in range of each other and gives you an idea of how and when they’ll react to one another. In the later levels, this is an absolutely essential tool, as you’ll need to orchestrate complex interactions among these fields to manipulate objects (and in turn, yourself). With the exception of one late puzzle, which was especially annoying, I didn’t come across anything particularly vexing, although you’ll almost always need to expend a bit of trial-and-error to find the right solution. In this, the solutions often don’t feel quite as elegant as Portal, in that even when you’ve sussed out the correct solution, the magnetic field thing feels a lot more imprecise (than the portal mechanic) and you’ll often need to spend a bit of time tweaking it to get everything just so.
Even so, the puzzles are still generally well-done and well-paced and have just the right level of challenge so that upon completing them you’ll think to yourself “How clever am I!”, and just the right amount of addictiveness so you’ll likely say “Just one more level” when your spouse is yelling at you to put out the garbage.
Like Portal, the majority of the game consists of entering a room, solving puzzles using your puzzle-solving gun to reach an exit and taking an elevator to the next room. As the game begins, you progress through each level (room) under the auspices of the Magrunner training program, because apparently the future of space exploration principally involves moving platforms around with magnets. As you progress through your training, things predictably begin to go a bit sideways. The power fluctuates, and other ominous signs and portents present themselves until all hell quite literally breaks loose and you find one of your fellow trainees being devoured by some ill-mannered creature, presumably from R’lyeh, or somewhere thereabouts.
The majority of the story, such as it is, is relayed via remote conversations (your Magtech glove doubles as a holographic smartphone) with other characters in between levels, largely consisting of variations on “Hey, what’s going on here?” and “This is highly irregular.” Most of these take place between you and your mentor / surrogate father Gamaji, who happens to be a six-armed mutant, because apparently mutants are also a thing in the year 2050, although this particular development is revealed with the same gravitas that my wife would use to remind me to pick up some milk on the way home from work.
It’s not that the story isn’t good (well, that’s part of it), but I don’t find this type of storytelling mechanic particularly effective in this type of game (or in just about any game, actually). Among other things, the Portal games demonstrated that you could actually tell an interesting story within the constraints of the setting, just by adding the right set-pieces and letting the player organically discover it through exploration. This type of environmental storytelling feels a lot more absorbing than having the plot points telegraphed by a bunch of holographic figures on your wrist yelling at you.
To that end, Magrunner unfortunately lacks any real sense of exploration that might aid in enhancing the story. The Portal games (particularly Portal 2) were at their best when they let you off the leash and you were able to explore the environment, solving puzzles as if they were a part of the surroundings that you were able to exploit rather than a contrivance someone put in your way to test you. Unfortunately, Magrunner is never able to cast off the rat-in-a-maze paradigm and convince you that you’re doing anything other than progressing through a series of artificially-constructed scenarios. After the “training” goes off the rails, the environments expectedly change; you progress into some sort of nefarious underground laboratory environments, presumably used for communing with The Old Ones or some such, but the essential gameplay never evolves beyond the test chamber concept. You’re still solving puzzles with the intent of reaching the room’s exit and boarding an elevator to reach the next room.
Even in the final act of the game, when you’re somehow or other magically transported to some manner of cosmic realm, the goal remains the same, except the literal room is replaced by giant floating rocks and the elevator is replaced with a magic gate that warps you to the next level. Throughout the game, the objects you use to solve each level remain the same regardless of the setting (e.g., a platform in the training level is exactly the same as a platform in the floating nether regions level), further giving every level the same sense of artificiality, regardless of the environment.
This isn’t to say that the game doesn’t do something a little different on occasion. Enemies eventually appear in some of the later levels. In a number of instances, they’re essentially obstacles, requiring you to use your magnet powers to clear them out of the way, but in a few cases you’re actively threatened or chased down by enemies throughout the level. I thought these were actually quite inspired, forcing you to think on your feet as you use the same problem-solving skills to try to stay a few steps ahead of some Eldritch horror bearing down on you. Unfortunately, these scenarios are relatively few in number. I really wish the designers had played with some of the concepts a bit more, as they add some very welcome variety to the gameplay and go a long way to addressing my criticisms on the “same-ness” of the levels.
The Unreal Engine 3 graphics and sound are on par with what you would expect from games of this ilk. The initial training levels start off with a very artificial, almost cartoonish, look, which is eventually replaced by gritty, industrial-looking environments before transitioning to rock platforms floating in the cosmos. The environments themselves are perfectly fine, if not particularly remarkable. The oversized countenance of Cthulhu that occasionally looms over you in the background of the later levels (even if he’s relegated to a passive observer) is a nice touch, but aside from that, there’s not terribly much that establishes any kind of memorable atmosphere worthy of a Lovecraft-themed experience. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t really care about the story, or I was too singularly focused on the puzzles, but in general, I found the attempts at horror about as effective as someone prancing around wearing an off-white bed sheet.
Despite the utterly disposable story and futile attempts to beat the dead horse on the altar of the Elder Gods, Magrunner is not a bad game by any means. If it doesn’t live up to the high bar set by the Portal games, well, not much does, but although it may not seem fair, the comparisons with Portal are rather justified. Magrunner wears its inspiration in a little heart-shaped locket (with a picture of a weighted companion cube inside) around its neck, and anyone who has played Portal will inevitably be mentally making comparisons as they play through the game.
It seems a bit trite and perhaps a little unfair to call Magrunner “Portal with magnets”, but it’s a pretty reasonable description, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While it doesn’t measure up in terms of story or stray much from the lab-rat formula, the basic gameplay is quite satisfying throughout its 40 levels and a solid 8-10 hours of gameplay. If your interest is in the Lovecraftian/Cthulhu hook, there are much better games out there that scratch that particular itch, but if you’re in the market for a solid first-person puzzle-platforming experience, it’s probably worth your time.
What is it they say? Nothing’s ever new, it’s all just a bit of history repeating? Truer words were never spoken when applied to a game like Project Temporality, a game of repetition not only in its level design but also in its aspirations. In this time-bending puzzler, you’ll be repeating your efforts via multiple timelines to solve platforming problems as you play through a story that will feel awfully familiar to fans of the infinitely superior Portal series. Even with the repetition, the puzzles work well, but the story will leave you with little desire to sit through it again.
Project Temporality is a fairly low budget affair set on a space station orbiting Jupiter. You won’t find flashy cutscenes, intricate plotting, or even voice-overs in this game. There’s not even any real lead-in or introduction; instead, hitting ‘start game’ on the menu takes you straight to your character standing alone in a darkened room. You’re a Journeyman Project-looking astronaut given the label of “87”, fated to run through the space station undertaking tests for a mysterious Admiral so he can judge if you are fit for purpose (exactly what that purpose may be is left deliberately ambiguous.)
There’s very little in the way of backstory for your character, other than you being the latest of a long line of test subjects in Project Temporality who must try out a new form of time manipulation equipment called the TP implant. This device allows you to rewind time and send a time clone to repeat that action, leaving you free to perform a different task – the clones are like helpers, but helpers fixed to the rails of the action you just performed. You can send up to 11 clones out on a given level and they don’t expire; they’ll simply stand still at the end of their action sequence with no way to claw them back if you’re running short by the end of the stage.
Using the mouse to look around the 3D environment and the WASD keys to move, you’ll leave the initial room only for a text box to appear front and centre announcing where you are and what you must do; a picture of a grey-haired older man accompanies it. This is Admiral Melville, one of only two characters who speak directly to you. With no replies possible from your character, speech happens through these text boxes, which just interrupt you as you run from one puzzle to the next.
You’ll make your way through a series of corridors and rooms all decked out in futuristic space station chic – somewhere between the movie Alien and the Mass Effect game series – before eventually coming across the first of your puzzles. There’s not much going on in the corridors or rooms in between puzzles, aside from the odd document or diary entry that you can interact with to read up on the station’s situation. These all come from various characters you never meet doling out portentous warnings of what lies in store for test subjects, as well as questioning the methods of the powers in charge. This, along with the characters speaking to you, provides the sole narrative framework to the game. Your actions have no bearing on the story and little you do is linked to the unfolding tale; you’re simply solving puzzles.
The game is fairly pleasing on the eyes, particularly the lighting: light from Jupiter streams in through the windows, and overhead lights flicker on and off with power cables hanging limply at their sides, sparking sporadically. It’s all moodily lit with trails of what looks like blood along the floor to enhance the sinister setting. Unfortunately, despite its visual flair, you never really feel connected to the scenery around you – it seems more like a veneer repeated ad nauseam: the blood doesn’t lead anywhere, the sparking cables and seemingly complex computers have no purpose, and even Jupiter looks like it’s a star lifted from another game and just given a familiar name. It all feels a bit borrowed and LEGO-like: building blocks stacked one next to the other to make game levels, as opposed to a finely crafted environment that helps enhance the tension as the story unfolds.
This wouldn’t be such a problem if it weren’t for the fact that it has a knock-on effect with the story. There’s no false sense of security or initial impression that 87 is simply running training tests – instead the Admiral talks to you calmly about your tests whilst all around you lay the debris and fluids of former subjects. You know from the outset that something is wrong with your mission, so when the story starts to reflect this you can see the ‘twist’ a mile off. Even the Admiral, at points, seems surprised that you’re continuing despite the carnage, and when the best you can come up with, as a player, is ‘well… this corridor leads to the next puzzle?’ you can’t help but feel somewhat disconnected from the story.
The music similarly doesn’t enhance the experience. It’s some fairly decent sci-fi-sounding electronica, but since there’s only a few tracks set on repeat, the soundtrack doesn’t emphasise the characters’ words with a suitably eerie score, or punch a shocking moment with a resounding audio sting. In fact, the sound design is pretty limp throughout, with very few effects and those that are used being fairly comical – especially the jumping sound.
Despite its budget production and narrative shortcomings, however, Project Temporarility impresses when it comes to puzzle design – and this is, after all, what you’re playing it for. To begin with you’ll initially control the actions of only one clone – programming it to press buttons in sequence, allowing you to jump from platform to platform. But fairly quickly, the time bending mechanics become more complicated as you’re managing multiple clones all needing to be set to jump, press buttons, revolve lasers and grab keys in unison – a learning curve that may put off those with short attention spans. Think of it as a co-op game where you have to plan out the actions of all your teammates in advance of running it yourself. People with programming knowledge will have the perfect brain for this kind of puzzle – you’re effectively setting up your commands, then hitting ‘run’ and hoping it all meshes together. Given their disconnect from the story, few levels stand out as particularly outstanding, but the time warping premise remains entertaining throughout.
The engine is remarkably robust for puzzles like this. I imagined all sorts of slow-down as it tracked the action of multiple clones all at once, but there was no evidence of this at all. As you run around, clicking the left mouse button enters time warp mode; this allows you to freely rewind the actions you’ve done so far (quite literally – it even has a rewinding VHS sound effect to accompany it). Once you’re back to a point where you can perform another action, simply right-clicking will send a clone to perform the action you’ve just done. Similarly, the basic actions you can perform are easy to do, whether making short or longer jumps or simply interacting with hotspots. The setup is mercifully simple, allowing space in your brain to try to figure out the myriad clone assignments you have to set up. My only complaint with the engine is that for a game designed specifically to require precision and timing, your character loves getting stuck in doorways, particularly whilst waiting for them to open, meaning you’ll have to rewind and try the action again. It’s not game-breaking as you can easily rewind, even if your character has become stuck in a piece of scenery by accident, but it can be annoying and could have done with some polishing.
In fact, overall it’s the lack of polish that lets Project Temporality down. It aims for Portal but falls more in line with Quantum Conundrum: a series of fairly well-designed brainteasers given the thin veneer of a story with little-to-no connection between the two. The lack of cutscenes and voice-overs limits the storytelling to a series of text boxes that often prove more irritating than intriguing, breaking your flow whenever they appear. Its puzzles start out promisingly, keeping a good level of creativity throughout, and at roughly eight hours of gameplay it’s a decent amount of content for a budget price. However, by the end the imagination is visibly wearing thin, both in storyline and in puzzle execution, and the whole game ends in a fairly lacklustre way. Each level is awarded stars depending on how quickly you complete it, so there’s an element of replay value, but whilst it’s worth a single run-through for anyone craving a Portal-style puzzler, for those of us that enjoy a decent story with their puzzle-platforming, this is probably one project not worth repeating.