You don’t have to look hard to draw parallels between Magnetic: Cage Closed and Portal: Both star a woman who has to navigate a series of puzzle rooms from a first-person viewpoint, at the behest of a disembodied antagonistic voice; and both equip you with nohing more than a physics-bending weapon and your own wits to see you through.
It’s an unfortunate comparison as Magnetic doesn’t come close to matching the quality of the elements derived from its illustrious inspiration, be it in either the quirky humor or sharp level design of Valve’s creation. It’s not the real McCoy, joining the ranks of many other first-person puzzlers like Qube, and that alone might dissuade potential customers and distract critics from the fact that Magnetic: Case Closed, Swedish upstart Guru Game’s baby, has an identity of its own – one that’s altogether darker than Portal’s.
Where Portal was characterized largely by a clinical color pallete, svelte, futuristic weapon design and AI supporting characters with near-human mannerisms, Magnetic‘s aesthetic is one of dingy, checkered corridors, boxy analog weaponry that speaks to its neo-Cold War setting and human supporting characters with a near-robotic sense of morality. Not only do they have no qualms putting your character, a death row inmate known only as Prisoner XE-47623, through a series of death traps – but one of them is even willing you to fail.
And you will if you don’t come to grips with Magnetic’s most distinguishing feature: the Magnet Gun. In theory, it functions much like Half-Life 2’s Gravity Gun, attracting and repelling objects (opposite- and like-polarity): a switch too high up to reach? Magnetically engage a nearby box to tractor-beam it in and then repel it away from you up to the ledge, weighing the switch down.
But in both practice and application the Magnet Gun is distinct: Whereas the Gravity Gun, a veritable weapon, immediately vacuums up objects or blasts them away with tactile aplomb the Magnet Gun applies acceleration to objects under its influence, at first subtly coaxing them towards you, and then roping them in with increased gusto. The Magnet Gun, a tool, makes you feel less like the world’s most badass nuclear physicist and more like an X-Man gingerly coming to come to grips with their telekinetic abilities.
Portal’s Chell and Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman ostensibly act on their environment whereas here, in keeping with the theme of magnetism, the environment pushes and pulls back on you, requiring both awareness and a degree of mastery. Beaming a fridge-sized box over to you is a little more complicated when it exerts its own gravitational pull, strong enough to mutually reel you in; you’ll need to backpedal on the spot to avoid being swept off a platform and into a chlorine gas pit (they induce mild cases of death).
The environment might be trying to kill you, but you’ll nonetheless leverage a symbiotic relationship with it. For example you can slingshot yourself across chasms by applying opposite polarity to a surface on the far side of the gap, or launch yourself up away from a metallic floor with like-polarity in an effect similar to rocket-jumping. Puzzles may only have one solution but tactful magnetic manipulation layers on a thin but welcome execution requirement. My personal favorite example is in one level that tasks you with traversing a spike pit by applying an opposite-polarity bear against the floor, essentially flying your way around the room.
Genuine “eureka!” moments are few and far between however. You can figure out how to clear most rooms within five minutes, turning the focus instead on how to go about it. After a little introspection the puzzles feel closer to Magnet Gun obstacle courses than geuine head-scratching conundrums. And on the first playthrough that works in Magnetic’s favor, lending to breezy pacing that keeps you gliding on level-after-level.
It’s the subsequent playthrough, spurred on by a “moral choice” feature that’s at best decorative, that shows up Magnetic’s flaws. At chapter intermissions you’ll make choices that may lead you to one of nine endings, some of them premature and grisly. Choose incorrectly between two otherwise arbitrary options and you’ll get a bad ending, and worse the automatic checkpointing (and lack of a manual save) ensures you’ll have to start the entire game again to see what’s behind door #2.
The second (or even third) playthrough grates as you go through the motions of “solving” puzzles you’ve already cleared and inter-level corridor transitions used to mask load times become a pace-killing drag. Pursuing different choices may lead to a couple of bonus levels, but it’s mostly the same struggle for the honor of standing against a different colored backdrop when the ending credits roll.
The choices themselves lack moral complexity. Brilliantly painful moral choices offer options that are equally appealing (for different reasons) but reveal shades of moral gray the more you mull them over: Magnetic offers you the choice of sentencing a convicted murderer to death, or putting them into the same test system as you (where they’ll probably die) – the inmate is a faceless nobody of no consequence, both of these choices are gray enough from the start that there’s no anguish in choosing. It simply doesn’t matter.
The optional Time Trial mode which runs you through stages you’ve already cleared, also feels like a spurious, checkbox addition; lacking leaderboards, ghosts and (most alarmingly) even the ability to track your own personal bests. Magnetic is a short game that could use some replay value but neither the artificial playtime bulk that results from the poor implementation of moral choice nor the Time Trial mode which does little more than apply a timer overlay to the screen, provide this. At seven hours in you’ll have either seen everything there is, or lost the will to.
Any evaluative weight placed on Magnetic: Cage Closed should be given to the first playthrough as it doesn’t offer up much else. Fortunately it’s a polished experience with a distinct visual signature that puts other generic asset hoarding Unity-engine-driven games to shame.
Despite being billed as a “moral puzzler” Magnetic isn’t quite either, failing to arm you with meaningful choices and being, at its core, more about the action of swinging and flinging yourself and objects in the environment around to get to each successive goal door. In both quality and quantity, Portal this is not. It’s something else, but perhaps something worth trying on its own terms.