Magicka really is something special. In an era where every game tries to play follow the leader to some other game, true attempts to do something new are rare. The developers over at Arrowhead Studios have tried to combine RPGing, humor and puzzle solving into what amounts to a pretty fast-paced adventure game.
In Magica you play a wizard. You don’t know much about your character. In fact, the only thing you can change about him (or perhaps her) is the color of their robe. You never get to see their face.
Your character goes to some sort of a wizard college, and the humor of the game is evident right from the start. From the fake Swedish everyone talks to the little quips you can read when you click on just about anything, you can tell that a lot of jokes went into this game. As you adventure, Magicka will make sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant references that poke fun at everything from Dungeon and Dragons to Star Wars to Indiana Jones to computer role-playing games in general.
The humorous take on the game world is in direct contrast to the very serious engine that is put forward. Unlike most games where you pick and choose spells as you advance in level, here you can do anything you want almost right from the start. In fact, experimenting with the magic system can yield some pretty impressive, and sometimes deadly results.
Magic is made up of eight elements in Magicka. You have all the standard ones found in most games like fire and lightning, plus healing and some more rare ones like raw arcane power. Following the tutorial level, you will have access to all of them. Spells can combine up to five elements, represented by dots on your magic bar. You cast spells by typing hotkeys that load that element into your magic staff. And different elements will interact with one another differently as well. For example, if you load up your staff with one dot of Earth, it will produce a boulder that shoots out at enemies. If you add one dot of Earth and one dot of healing, you will produce a huge boulder that explodes and also heals a target, though I don’t know why you would want to make that exact combination.
Some elements cancel each other out entirely, making spells containing both of them nearly impossible unless separated by another element. For example, you can’t put Lightning and Earth together normally because one will eat the other in your loading bar. But you can if you put a buffer element between them in the spell lineup. Some elements warp into other things too. If you put a Fire behind a Water in the lineup, they combine into a single dot of Steam. And you will get a trophy for figuring this out by the way, so go forth and get that goodie.
The puzzle element of the game comes into play as you use your magic to overcome obstacles that are blocking your path. Sometimes this is done as part of the main quest, and sometimes it’s merely a side quest. For example, you can freeze a body of water and walk across it to see what is on the other side, or use a rock spell to blow open some doors. Much of the world is generously destructible, so have fun causing havoc and experimenting as you travel.
You don’t actually level up in the game, a fact that the developers don’t fail to make fun of, and it’s nice to see that they themselves are not off limits to their own humor. Right from the start you can cast every spell, you just don’t know how to do them all. As you adventure you will find books that have new spell formulas written into them, which can then be called up using the wheel on your mouse so you don’t have to memorize them. But if you experiment enough, you can learn new spells on your own. Most spells are capable of damaging you and enemies, so those experiments are best conducted near a save statue, preferably right after you have activated it.
I’ve already mentioned the sound within the game, and it’s quite good. While the music is forgettable, it’s not bad. And the voice acting, if you can call it that, is a key point to the humor. Every time you talk to someone it’s like trying to interview the Swedish Chef from the Muppets. Thankfully, subtitles are written in English, or the language of your choice. That is a pretty clever way to make the game accessible to everyone without needing to record dialog in every language.
Graphically, the game looks really good, with typically good looking landscapes appropriate for the medieval-like fantasy setting. Some of the best jokes in the game are built into the landscape too, so keep your eyes peeled.
I wanted to give this innovative game a perfect five GiN Gems for gameplay, but it has a pretty tragic flaw. It’s too darn hard, and there are no difficulty level settings. Sometimes you will have twenty or thirty opponents coming at your poor little wizard from all angles, and you simply don’t have time to set your spells and cast them before being knocked down (thus breaking the process), dragged off, exploded or cast upon by another computer-controlled mage. You can’t preload spells into hotkeys for quick casting. You can’t pause the battle to catch your breath. You can’t save the game right before a big battle (though sometimes the game does this automatically). And the biggest flaw: you can’t set the difficulty level. It would be so nice if you could tone things down. Whether this would reduce the hit-points of the monsters or the number of monsters appearing doesn’t really matter. But the current difficulty settings will keep casual players from enjoying this game beyond the tutorial level, and even hardcore gamers will struggle with the slow controls in a very fast-paced world.
I let one hardcore gamer and one puzzle/adventure guy try Magicka out. The puzzle/adventure guy quit after failing the first major fight with goblins streaming off a ship. He tried to do it over 20 times and then just gave up. The hardcore guy struggled and got a lot further, but said it stopped being fun when the battles got too large.
Magicka allows four players to adventure together at the same time, and I wonder if the huge battles were leveled based on having multiple players fighting? If so, then they need a separate difficulty level for single players, or they need to make it clear that you can’t play alone. The sad part is that this game could be amazing for casual players on the same level that Torchlight is, but not with the current settings and no way to change that.
Difficulty settings aside, you can pick up the game for just a few dollars, so there is no reason not to try it out. There is even a DLC that puts the wizards in Vietnam during the war. Yes, I know it sounds weird, but it’s no joke. Well, actually it may be, but it’s a playable joke and can add some hours of enjoyment to the system for not much cash.
Magicka earns high marks for doing something different, and for the most part doing it quite well. A couple little tweaks here and there, particularly in the difficulty department, and we might even have a candidate for a casual Game of the Year. Even now, it’s a fun and funny game that is more than worth the low price. It earns 4 GiN Gems.