Play with polarity in prison!
Magnetic – Cage Closed is a game about attraction and repulsion. The concept is simple: you have a “gun” that pulls magnetic objects towards you or pushes them away from you. Like most great games though, this concept is easy to learn, but challenging to master. This basic idea of a physics manipulating gun with two central modes is one of the many similarities Magnetic – Cage Closed shares with Portal: a game that looms large over the first person puzzling genre like its omniscient antagonist GladOs, taunting lesser imitators with piercingly monotone witticisms. This obviously raises the question: can Magnetic – Cage Closed come out the other end of a barrage of Portal comparisons Still Alive?
Magnetic – Cage Closed is set in some dystopian, futuristic panopticon where prisoners are forced to complete potentially lethal tests on a daily basis. You’re a cog in this military-industrial machine: a death row inmate genetically altered to withstand greater punishment and handed an experimental weapon to provide your sadistic overseers with more data on it.
There are two main things you can do with your magnetic gun: fling around magnetic boxes and fling yourself around the increasingly dangerous levels. Magnetizing something, not only exerts a force on what you’re aiming at, it also exerts a force on you. This means you can jump higher by pushing yourself away from an object, or add a little forward momentum by pulling yourself towards something. I was gradually eased into this idea as I smoothly ascended Magnetic’s gentle difficulty curve. By the end of the game I’d be flying over spike-traps and boosting myself past rows of flamethrowers using the magic of reverse polarity, never feeling overwhelmed or unchallenged by the tasks ahead of me.
In the classic Portal tradition, you’ll spend a fair amount of time moving around metallic cubes. However, the way you’ll be using these boxes is far more complex. Leaving boxes on buttons or throwing them into switches will open doors or activate moving platforms elsewhere. Many puzzles give you multiple boxes, and it’ll require a good amount of chin-stroking and contemplation before you figure out what to put where. The puzzles are varied and inventive too. One level will have you using the boxes as counterweights on a delicate system of see-saws (positioned threateningly above a pool of chlorine gas), whereas another might have you using positioning the boxes like stairs to climb over obstacles. The introduction of surface mounted magnets in later levels just makes things more interesting. If you push a box over a repelling magnet it’ll hover in the air and make a makeshift platform to jump over.
You’re offered various choices throughout Magnetic. Even these suggestions of free will make you feel like a lab animal. These are not grand moral choices where the player has agency, but part of an experiment where you’re being mentally dissected. The first is a simple test of whether or not you’re inclined to push a big red button on the floor with vaguely threatening looking mannequins on the other side of glass windows suggesting what might happen if you do. Campaigns run off a single save file that autosaves with at the end of every level, and after other key moments. When the prison’s calculating psychologist tells you there’s only one shot at making these choices, she means it. More than a few times I got a little rattled being forced to make these esoteric choices, sometimes with the threat of a good gassing forcing me to expedite my decision making. These sections really amplified the Orwellian ambiance of the story.
When a level is completed, a buzzer sounds and a green light appears above a hatch. The hatch then gradually slides open to reveal a crawlspace to the next room. This mode of level transition makes you feel like a cowed rat scurrying through a maze. You’re shuttled between testing areas and your featureless cell via a re-purposed garbage container feeling every bit like the human refuse you’re taunted for being. Magnetic – Cage Closed embraces its own bleakness and gives an important reminder of how the future could be where people – as Warden Keene notes with satisfaction – are too scared and selfish to ask questions about prisoners who go missing.
This isn’t to say Magnetic – Case Closed is lacking in humor. There’s more than a few darkly funny moments, such as when the warden expresses frustration with how one testing room is overly simple and designed for children, before adding the addendum that you’ve got five minutes to complete it before being gassed.
The taunting of your omniscient oppressors just highlights how perfect the pacing of the game is. It’s just at the time the highly structured levels are verging on the excessive, and the Warden is taunting you for feeling tired and fatigued, that levels change from being claustrophobic to being wide open and unpredictable. The issue is that these more open spaces reveal some of Magnetic’s graphical limitations with ugly fog effects and some sneaky use of bad texturing on conveniently far away objects. In these sections the lack of visual polish compared to Valve’s blockbuster cake denial sim becomes particularly evident. It makes me wish Magnetic – Cage Closed had a bigger budget to better do justice to its great ideas and excellent design.
The biggest problem with Magnetic – Cage Closed is the shortness of its story. Just as I felt I was getting the hang of slingshotting myself recklessly over spike-filled pits, the game drew itself to a conclusion. I completed the main campaign in a fairly brisk 3 hours. Though there is a way out, in one sense or another, you reach it altogether too soon. There is scope for replayability, since the game boasts a pretty substantial nine different endings. However, playing the entire game over again to reach the branching point for the various endings is a pretty repetitive proposition if you’re aiming to get all of them.
My biggest worry about Magnetic – Cage Closed was that it would be a poor man’s Portal. However, I can happily confirm it’s an upper-middle class man’s Portal (complete with a white picket fence and an obsessive concern about house prices). Magnetic might not quite be as entertaining, visually rich, or amusingly idiosyncratic as the game that inspired it, but it comes respectably close. If you’ve felt forlorn in the absence of metal cubes to pick up and physics puzzles to solve with gun-like appliances, Magnetic – Cage Closed is well worth attracting into your collection.
Final Verdict: 4 / 5
Available on: PC (reviewed) ; Publisher: Gambitious Digital Entertainment; Developer: Guru Games; Players: 1; Released: May 26, 2015 ;
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Magnetic: Caged Closed provided by the game’s publisher.