Hogwarts this ain’t. A generic fantasy world is being threatened by a generic, creeping evil, so the generic magic school has dispatched 1-4 terrifyingly powerful (but comically inaccurate) wizards on a generic quest to save the world. Is Magicka, the first release by small swedish studio Arrowhead truly magical, or does it struggle to even pull a rabbit from a hat?
First impressions of Magicka are silly, enthusiastic and charming - traits which carry through the whole game. Opening with the time-honored tradition of zooming in on a tome containing the tale of our heroes, the title; ‘Magicka: An Adventure Of Sorts’ sets the tone. Launching straight into the game, two 360 controllers plugged in, my testing minion and I hadn’t even so much as seen a button-prompt before being assigned the job of saving the world by a mysteriously pale eastern-European man called Vlad with a habit of casually mentioning how he is completely and totally not a vampire.
The graphics are quick to make an impression. The visuals are charming, bright, vibrant and clear, with characters being easily identified and likeably animated. From a locked isometric perspective, the camera occasionally zooms out further to give a better view of the action, but the only control the player has is over his chosen wizard. Spell effects in particular are very nice to look at, going beyond traditional particle sprays and into some fairly inspired effects, including a chuckle-inducing view of the internal animation rigging skeleton when things get electrocuted. Audio-wise, what you hear in the trailers above and below is what you get. A nice-sounding (but somewhat-generic and forgettable) fantasy adventure score, but there’s a good range of whooshes, booms and thundercracks accompanying the combat.
The game wastes absolutely no time in dropping the players into a tutorial mission, after a magical mishap at the Good Luck Saving The World party dumps them in the school’s dungeon basement. The mechanics of gameplay quickly become clear, cementing quite rapidly that Magicka is NOT an RPG. Not even slightly. There are no levels, no stats (beyond damage numbers popping up overhead), no classes and no quests beyond saving the world. While there is loot, it is strictly limited to the occasional special staff or sword to pick up in the field, and they’re dropped on death. Magicka could most safely be described as a ‘thinking mans shooter’. Gauntlet with brains, perhaps.
The crux of the gameplay is the magic system. You play as a wizard. An immensely powerful one, unshackled by anything as mundane as mana bars or cooldowns. You’ve got a sword to use as a backup close-combat attack, but it’s largely useless unless augmented magically. You can cast spells as fast as you can think of them. By chaining together lines of up to five elemental symbols from a list of 8 (either QWER & ASDF on keyboard, right analogue stick on a gamepad), you can craft your own spells and deploy them in four primary fashions – area, targeted, self or enchant. Just lining up a single Fire symbol will let you throw a spray of flame in front of you (as a targeted attack), as a circular blast (area), on your little off-hand sword to boost its power (enchant) or less usefully on yourself, causing you to burst comically into flames.
The magic system is enormously flexible. The 8 elements (Fire, Water, Earth, Cold, Lightning, Arcane, Healing & Shield) can be combined in almost any fashion. Earth + Fire lets you throw an explosive fireball, or blast lava from the earth around you. Earth + Shield can erect rocky walls as a target/area spell, or encase you in a personal earthen cocoon when cast on yourself. Some elements don’t play nice with each other (Earth will cancel out Lightning before you can cast anything), while others can combine (Fire + Water merges to make Steam, while Water + Cold makes Ice), so while not every combination is viable, you’ve effectively got 10 building blocks to make spells out of, and four ways to deploy them.
There’s a fairly lengthy learning curve to all this, and initially you’ll be miscasting all over the place and blowing yourself up on a regular basis. That said, after a few hours of play, you’ll be pulling off some spell combos that you wouldn’t have even dreamt possible. There’s a learning curve, but it’s a rewarding one. On top of all of this, you’ll gradually collect a range of special spells which require specific strings of elements in order to cast, letting you do things like become invisible, or call down an almighty thunderbolt from above. While this might sound overly complicated and stuffy, it really is the entire heart of the game, and works with surprising ease and elegance. Within about half an hour you’ll be fairly adept at casting most of the basic go-to spells on the fly, and the rest will come in time.
As soon as you’re out of the tutorial area, the enemies start pouring in and seldom slow down. The goal is simple – get to the end of 13 levels (each topped off with an entertaining boss encounter), igniting, electrocuting, freezing or otherwise exploding everything in your path. Cooperative play is highly encouraged, with both online and local varieties offered. What passes for a plot in the game is delivered primarily in short in-game cutscenes and is exceptionally tongue-in-cheek. The dialogue is spoken, but in what sounds like a creative hybrid of Simlish and Swedish (and is packed full of silly jokes and references if you keep your ears open), and all the script is genuinely funny, reading like a modern-day, internet-savvy Monty Python skit. The comedy styling of the narrative more than matches the anarchic tone of the gameplay.
It feels almost as if you’re playing as a mad scientist, rather than a wizard. Haphazardly throwing together combinations of spell components in order to try and explode your foes, while trying to avoid the multitude of foolish combinations which will result in you getting burnt, electrocuted, blasted into orbit or otherwise killed. Combat initially feels chaotic and directionless, and difficulty is fairly high, and doesn’t seem to scale too well to number of players. There are no difficulty levels to pick from, either, so if you get stuck, your only choice is to improve or drag in more players to assist you. That said, everything has a solution, even if it isn’t immediately obvious, and it is very rewarding to turn what looks like a terrible defeat-to-be into a spectacular victory. There’s a lot of depth to the combat, and learning the ins and outs of applied magic use will see you through most things.
As you hack your way through the campaign, you’ll find yourself challenged by a broadening range of enemy types, each with their own elemental strengths, weaknesses and special attacks. Early levels might threaten players with goblin grenadiers, which are easily dispatched with any fire-based spell (causing them to detonate violently), while later on you’ll be encountering toughened, armored foes with elemental resistances, leaping attacks and grapples. The most creative enemies are rival spellcasters, who can either put up an extended fight, or be dispatched very easily, depending on how well you’ve got your counter-spell tactics worked out. A pack of forest-dwelling druids might even the odds by causing it to rain, but a quick Nullify spell will clear the air and allow you to start igniting things, or bombard your now soggy foes with lightning spells.
The level design is also fairly impressive, presenting some nice, varied combat environments, such as trying to repulse an enemy force trying to cross a frozen, slippery river surface (which can be melted for easy kills), or defending a narrow airship deck from marauding sky-pirates. It’s not all sunshine and lollipops, though. There are some weak points in the level structure, like a large Orcish fortress complex, where it’s all too easy to get knocked (or just fall) into the surrounding trenches, requiring you to take a lengthy hike to the next available slope up to the main battlefield. Other levels in particular can be quite unfair for solo play, filled with instantly lethal cliff-edges and enemies with knockback attacks. Some enemies, like enormous Ogres, seem designed to encourage teamplay, as their melee attacks are capable of instantly killing an unshielded wizard. Generally though, the levels flow well and even have a few secret/bonus areas to explore, despite progression being largely a linear headlong charge.
The game definitely was designed to be played cooperatively. In singleplayer, death (which can come very quickly, often at your own hands) can put you back quite some distance. Even a single other player can mitigate this hugely, providing the chance of a prompt revival. In multiplayer, you aren’t forced back to a checkpoint unless all players die simultaneously. It’s clear where the focus of the game is. While entertaining in singleplayer, the game is desperately in need of a difficulty slider to make it a bit more accessible for first-time wizards. With 2-4 players, the game transforms into a thing of chaotic beauty, especially if you’ve either got local players with you, or voice-comms to aid you.
Notably, friendly fire is ALWAYS on, and the game almost encourages you to harm your friends. Resurrecting a fallen teammate is as quick as rattling off a two-element spell (takes less than two seconds), so mistakes are easily forgiven. Less easily forgiven is the ability to steal whatever special pickup weapons your friend was carrying before he turned into a bloody crater. Expect laughter and broken friendships on this quest. Once you’ve exhausted the campaign mode, there’s a couple of arena-survival challenges as well, which should push most players to their limits, as you endure wave after wave of increasingly dangerous and varied monsters.
While Magicka has some rough spots – mostly due to play balance, but also some glitches and connectivity issues – I really can’t think of a cooperative game I’ve had more fun with in recent years. The potential for manic, improvised battle-plans and comical failures resulting in allies going soaring through the air (or just vanishing in a puff of red smoke) is unparalleled, thanks to the shockingly clever magic system. The humor is always on-key, very few gags falling flat, and the whole thing is very pretty to look at on top of everything. The fact that it was released at a pocket-friendly budget price helps, too. If you’re looking for a cooperative game, local or online, you can do much worse than Magicka, and promises of heavy developer support suggest that things will improve further over the next couple of months, too. At the asking price, I reckon that Magicka is more than worth it. Just try the demo first, just to make sure that it runs okay on your machine.
Magicka is available on Gamersgate and Steam for around £8/$10/€10. Anyone buying on or before the 31st of January gets the first DLC pack for free. There’s also a fairly sizable playable demo, available on Steam now.