Get ready to wiggle your fingers like a real wizard
Reviewed and available exclusively on PC
Magicka is a game that really crept up on the mainstream gaming world (despite being in development since 2008), and so far it has turned out to be the PC indie darling of 2011. Despite its low-key release the game has managed to garner impressive sales so far, a testament to the attractive style and unique gameplay mechanics on offer (and the enticing low price – US$9.99 (±R70) on Steam).
Magicka wasn’t launched without hiccoughs however, and developer Arrowhead Game Studios has been working furiously to patch out a number of disastrous bugs. Everything from game breaking glitches to desktop crashes have been experienced so far. During my time with the game over the last week, it seemed that Arrowhead was patching things just ahead of my gameplay experience. I never encountered a crash to desktop, and I rarely found myself stuck in a broken game situation. In light of a number of recent AAA releases that were equally bug-ridden, yet despite this received high praise, I’m willing to give Magicka a break.
So, on to the game. Magicka is difficult to pigeon-hole – the developers describe it as “a satirical action-adventure game.” It has also been classed as an action RPG, albeit with stripped down RPG elements. It also bears a resemblance to a SHMUP (shoot ‘em up) although a rather complicated one.
Magicka is all about living out the role of a mage of the Sacred Order, tasked with saving the world from the machinations of an evil sorcerer. The game world is loosely based on Norse mythology, but it also features references to many pop culture, internet culture, and gaming culture tropes. As such, the game never really takes itself seriously, which is quite refreshing. There are a number of ‘nudge-nudge-wink-wink’ moments which will likely have one grinning broadly as they electrocute goblins. The story is a mash-up of every classic fantasy game you’ve ever played, yet thanks to the tongue in cheek nature of the game, Arrowhead pulls it off without feeling derivative.
To help survive the dangers of the game world, players will have at their disposal eight spell elements – this is the core gameplay mechanic. These spell elements are assigned to keys thusly: Q = Water; W = Life; E = Shield; R = Cold; A = Lightning; S = Arcane; D = Earth; F = Fire. Each of these spell elements has an individual effect, but it is the combination of the elements where the real magic lies. The elements also counter one another, or combine to do increased damage effects.
For example, one cannot combine water and lightning, nor lightning and earth. Soaking an enemy with water, and then unleashing a lightning attack will amplify damage. The arcane spell will convert attacks into focussed beams. The cold spell by itself sprays a cone of ice and slows enemies; combining cold with earth will fire a boulder of ice which explodes in a freezing area of effect. One can get quite creative, combining steam (fire + water) with lightning (steam apparently doesn’t counter lightning) and then chucking in an arcane modifier to create a beam of super damaging steamy lightning. The steam not only burns, but it also soaks enemies, who then take additional damage from the lightning. With spells comprised of a maximum of 5 elements and element combinations, the number of spell combinations is quite extensive. Players will likely be learning new tricks right up until the end of the game and throughout subsequent plays.
To top it off, there are 21 special spells to discover through books scattered about the game world, and these deliver some spectacular effects. Examples include a tornado, a blizzard, a grease trap that can be set on fire, and a giant bolt of lightning. Players can also cast spells to their own detriment – don’t get wet and try and cast lightning. To dry off, casting fire on oneself does the trick.
Learning the spell combos can be quite a challenge at first, and Magicka isn’t too forgiving with its difficulty curve – you’ll soon have your hands full. Once players get into the flow of things, their fingers will be dancing across the keyboard with the practiced grace of a master wizard. Enemies also come armed with tricks and elemental defences, so it pays to spot the identifying visuals associated in order to effectively counter. Enemy mages will soon appear and they are quite deadly – here, outwitting the enemy spell casters in terms of elemental counters becomes imperative.
Basic puzzle solving and combat tactics can also be employed thanks to the spell element system. For example, freezing a river (mages can’t swim) so one can access a secret area, or thawing a frozen river as monsters cross it, sending them to their doom in the depths.
Spells aren’t the only weapons available though. Players can carry one melee weapon, and one staff. There is no inventory, and when a new weapon is discovered, players will have to decide which item to retain. The weapons often add a special ability, such as firing a bolt of arcane energy from a sword, a fire attack, or summoning a Treant to aid in battle.
As players journey through the campaign, the world is divided into 13 distinct areas. Each is usually topped off with some epic boss battle. The visuals of the world are colourful and clear, with some fair attention to texture detail. Monsters are convincingly modelled, textured and animated. Particular attention has been paid to the spell effects which look fantastic, as are their deadly results – monsters can be steamed by beam energy until they pop in a cascade of bloody bits. Gore can be turned off for the kiddies by the way. One UI complaint is that thanks to the tumult of visuals encountered in big battles, it is easy to lose track of one’s health bar (a small floating bar under the player character) or the health bars of enemies. Overall, the visuals perfectly complement the humourous tone of the game.
The sound effects are also well executed. There is no voice dialog as such, and information is delivered through text pop-ups. Instead of speaking English, the characters use an odd parlance of mumbo-jumbo, which often sounds close enough to a recognisable word to be amusing. Spells produce satisfying audio effects that fit perfectly with the action. Throughout the various campaign missions the musical accompaniment is catchy and does a good job of setting the tone of each particular area. Thankfully some work has been put into the soundtrack and there is plenty of variety to prevent things becoming boring and repetitive.
Magicka is also packed with gameplay modes. While it is great fun to tackle single-player, playing with friends or online makes for a new experience. Up to four players can tackle the campaign cooperatively, through LAN, online, or even on a single screen. Mages can then combine their spell effects, making for some interesting battles. One player may focus on healing the rest, while they focus on particular schools of magic. Combining streams of magic can make for some devastating effects – for both enemies and allies. There is also a challenge mode, in which players fight off waves of enemies, earning a score and hopefully a spot on the online leaderboards.
Magicka is a light-hearted action game with a strong core magical gameplay mechanic unlike anything I’ve played. The familiarity of the game’s setting helps players dive right into learning the fun spellcasting system. While it never takes itself too seriously, the battles can become seriously challenging. Despite its ‘rough around the edges’ launch, the problems have mostly been fixed. Anyone looking for something different in the form of an extremely fun game with a multiplayer component, a refreshing gameplay mechanic, a sense of humour, and a low price, would be well served by Magicka.
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