By Tom Dann
Magicka, published by Grand Strategy giants Paradox Interactive, is representative of an increasingly common trend in videogames. Tiny development teams, here numbering only eight (at Arrowhead Studios), are creating incredibly creative new games, and gradually challenging the dominance of the AAA title. Why spend £40 on, for example, The Force Unleashed 2, which will be finished in under five hours and offers little in the way of imaginative gameplay, when you can spend £8 on Magicka, a game which potentially offers dozens of hours of fun? I know which game I’d choose.
Magicka is set in a fantasy kingdom, partially inspired by Norse mythology and partially by various fantasy settings, such as Warhammer, WarCraft and The Lord of the Rings. In this world, you are a wizard, part of a sacred order, who has been chosen to defend the kingdom against a dark sorcerer who is besieging the forces of light with his own creatures of darkness. It’s a giant cliché, in the best possible way. The entire world is presented tongue firmly in cheek, with neat references to plenty of other franchises, game or otherwise, including Star Wars, Monty Python’s Holy Grail and Indiana Jones. Many characters you meet along your journey will have genuinely funny things to say, and the game skips merrily along with a wonderful light-heartedness.
The game plays from an isometric view, giving a decent view of surroundings and allowing for fairly easy control. You move your wizard by holding down the left mouse button and pointing in the direction you want to go. You cast magic by holding down the right mouse button in the appropriate direction. It’s incredibly simple, but the game generates an incredibly amount of depth from its magic system.
There are eight “elements” of magic, including fire, cold, water, life, shield, lightning, earth and arcane. To create your own spells, you select your elements, using the appropriate keys (Q-R and A-F) before casting. Each element adds something different, for example arcane generates a beam, while earth creates a missile, cold can freeze opponents while fire can set them alight. Up to five elements can be combined (or multiples of the same: five fires gets you an epic flamethrower, for example). Now we start thinking about combinations; combine arcane with fire, for example, and get a beam of fire which sets enemies alight, or combine fire with earth, and cast an explosive fireball. There are other casting options, too; the middle mouse button casts on yourself (useful for life or shield, or water if you get set on fire), while holding shift and casting will create an area of effect attack (handy for when you inevitably get surrounded).
There are also skills, called Magicks, which can be found in spellbooks throughout the game. These are preset elemental combinations which create unique skills, for example lightning, arcane and fire combine to create a skill called Haste, which does exactly as it suggests. Magicks are cast using the spacebar, and there are 21 in total including Thunderbolt and Rainfall. They definitely add an extra level of complexity to the game.
There’s a huge assortment of enemies to fight, from goblins to beastmen and beyond. Each batch of enemies will have various types; from swordsmen, to archers, to grenadiers and even enemy wizards. These groups of enemies can be tough, even early in the game, which can be disheartening. Magicka is definitely a game to be played multiplayer: the lack of a difficulty slider means that a solo playthrough, while do-able, is incredibly difficult. It’s one of very few downsides in an otherwise excellent game.
Multiplayer works locally, online or through a LAN. Locally, one player uses the keyboard and mouse while up to three others can use Xbox 360 controllers. Stacking spell elements is a little convoluted on an Xbox 360 controller, but otherwise it controls OK. There are a number of documented issues with online multiplayer, though these are being ironed out. Multiplayer fights can be manic: with four players each casting area effect spells, friendly fire is inevitable. Luckily, it’s normally more funny than frustrating, and becomes part of the game.
While the game is very challenging in places, it’s also very accessible. Magicka blurs the lines between casual and hardcore experiences: while it’s easy to play, and there are no typical RPG complexities to worry about, such as weapon statistics and upgrades, or character levelling. For example, while you can pick up different weapons, and they do have different effects, there are no complicated statistics to go with them. The graphical style is also reminiscent of more casual games, with its bright, bold colours and simple characters. However, the difficulty, the setting and “easy to learn, difficult to master” magic system suggest a more hardcore experience. It’s an interesting combination.
Magicka is a bright, colourful game which stands out from the increasingly grey/brown crowd. The clever and intuitive magic system gives it its own unique flavour, while it blurs the line between hardcore and casual games by being both accessible and challenging. If it’s perhaps a little too challenging isn’t a major issue, though it could do with more frequent checkpoints to avoid frustration. While there are still a few technical issues to be ironed out, Magicka is still a must-have if you have a small group of friends to join in the adventure.
Copyright Tom Dann 2011