February 10, 2011
The universe of Fantasy is a convoluted place, populated by ghosts and goblins, wizards and witches, dragons and demons, and other assorted hobbit-related creatures. (Or not related at all, as the case may be. Sometimes. Hobbits are frisky little devils.) Over the years the fantasy genre has expanded and exploded, and then expanded again… And then occasionally eaten parts of itself in fits of cannibalism, as any popular culture is apt to do from time to time. Throw in internal worship and a healthy dose of genre-blurring with its close (sometimes uncomfortably, questionably close) cousin Science Fiction, and you have a medium just begging to be made fun of. This has been attempted at varying times in different formats, sometimes to great effect (Hi Terry Pratchett!) and sometimes…not…so…much. This is the uneven territory Arrowhead Game Studios saunters into with their new action-adventure magic-slinging game, aptly titled Magicka.
Your story starts recognizably enough in Magicka. You are a powerful wizard of the Order of Magick and trouble is brewing throughout the land. You are tasked with, well, going out and saving the world of course. You can choose to journey out alone, or in the company of up to three other wizards while all the other legions of wizards stay in the comfy castle and enjoy hot dogs and fine cheese. (Who needs them anyway, right?) Along the way you encounter armies of the less savory denizens of fantasy, and need to wipe them out with fantastic displays of magic.
Magicka is most closely paired with Norse mythology for the basis of its world, but in very short order you’ll see other fantasy worlds and references seeping into Magicka’s Midgard. From your mentor, Vlad, who is totally a vampire who is absolutely not a vampire, to Lord of the Rings, to Star Wars, to Castlevania, and even movies like 300, the references are almost everywhere you look. Some jokes may fly under your radar due to their subtlety, and others will have you nearly groaning with the outrageously bad puns. Everything is delivered with a wink and a smile; it becomes easy to tell that even the bad puns are intentional, and it’s not a product of trying too hard to be funny. Humor is a big part of what gives Magicka its charm, but the magic is what makes it really special.
Some Assembly Required
Magic is the bread and butter that you’ll partake of throughout your adventure, and past the tutorial level you’re given free reign over the elements. Every spell you can potentially cast comes from the basis of one or more elements; either used solo or in concert. The basic elements are fire, water, earth, cold, lightning, shield, arcane, and life. Each of these has different properties (which I won’t delve too far into here) that affect the manner in which your spell appears. For a quick example, fire usually has a short range spray property, but combine it with arcane which is beam-based, and suddenly you have a blast that can cut across the entire screen and set enemies on fire. Add another element to the mix and you attach some of its properties to the spell, and so on and so forth up to five elements.
Magicka also shuns the adventure game/RPG standard of limiting magic in some fashion. Gone are mana pools and MP bars or other old standbys. Instead, you get a simple bank below your personal wizard that lets you know what elements you have queued up, all of which can be casted in a self, AoE, or directional mode. No magic can be casted indefinitely, but directional attacks have a good duration; there’s nothing to stop you from unleashing that favorite spell of yours over an over again until nothing but meaty goblin parts are left around you. The end result is that you have an endless fun-bag to pull new tricks from where the only real limit is your imagination and dexterity. It’s certainly a breath of fresh air when it comes to the handling of magic.
In addition to being able to mix-n-match your own spells there are preset ‘Magicks’ which cover a large gamut of effects such as causing it to rain, reviving others, being able to move at extreme speeds, or even flat-out nullifying all magic in the area. These are found by picking up various spellbooks hidden in different areas of levels. If you’re adventuring with other greedy little wizards, don’t fret; one wizard picking up a spell book makes the Magick available to everyone in the group.
If how you can combine magic is a breath of fresh air, then how elements and Magicks interact with one another is the devilish grin that will creep on your face afterward. Almost every element reacts with another, even if they are just opposite numbers. If a group of beastmen slosh through a stream to come and give your wizard a warm and fuzzy hug, a healthy dose of lightning will do extra damage because they’re wet as well as being conducted through the whole group. (Science: it’s magical!) On the other hand, if you summon rain without a shield on, don’t even think about depending on lightning, as you’ll just end up damaging yourself and eliciting no magic whatsoever. You’ll quickly catch on to the little tricks you can pull off, and which maneuvers are better left alone.
A Cautionary Tale
It would be all toasting hot dogs and orcs if Magicka was nothing except a hilarious magic-creating experiment (which, actually, for the most part it is). I would be able to sit it upon a throne and gently place a crown upon its head, slightly askew in a fashionable manner, and then go do taxes or wash the laundry or some-such real life thing. But even kings stumble around a bit on their way to greatness, and Magicka is no exception in this regard. Some issues are design choices, (which will always be heavily slanted by individual opinion), but past those there are a few technical flaws with the game which I’ll cover last.
The first subject, which in this case is more commentary than an actual problem per se, is that Magicka definitely seems geared towards being a multiplayer affair rather than single player. This is because Magicka does not have an adjustable difficulty level, and the game can be damn hard at times. You’re going to witness the ‘Defeated’ screen quite a bit; even in multiplayer sessions. Actually, you’ll probably see that screen even more in multiplayer if you have douchebags masquerading as friends, because Magicka has friendly fire and it’s always on.
Going at the game solo will get rough due to the sheer number of enemies that can swarm you on screen at a time. Earlier on when you’re facing simple enemies things aren’t too bad, but as the types of enemies get more varied and opposing magic users step onto the field, things can get ugly in a hurry. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting jammed into a corner and gleefully humped to death by 15 monsters when no one else can save you. Fortunately the team at Arrowhead took into account the old-school difficulty of their game and don’t have any penalties for dying short of having to take a quick jump back to the last checkpoint.
The checkpoint system is well plotted out, but the absence of being able to save and quit mid-level left me scratching my head. My personal run-in with this came courtesy of having to replay the first level of the game three different times before realizing that ‘checkpoint does not equal auto-save’ (terribly ingrained behavior at this point, I’m afraid). Only completion of a level saves progress. Not so bad early on when levels go by pretty quickly, but the levels do get longer, and realizing you can’t stop playing without having to redo the work you’ve done in a level is irksome. A save state feature would have been wonderful in this situation, even if there wasn’t a full blown save option.
Tribulations and Triumphs
As promised, the last item on the agenda is technical issues. Top of the list: If you have a laptop with an integrated video card, no matter how spiffy it might be, you will likely have a terrible time trying to run Magicka; if you’re able to run it at all. Arrowhead has made no secret of this fact The reason for it is that Arrowhead Game Studios is comprised of a whole seven (yes, one more than six!) developers, and only two of those are programmers. Their dilemma was this (courtesy of the Magicka FAQ on Steam):
“When the choice came between additional gameplay features and optimize performance on IGP’s we chose the former. What would you have chosen in our position?”
I can’t say I disagree with their choice. Unfortunately, if you have an integrated card and can’t play Magicka, you likely never will.
The remainder of the technical flaws are bugs where your mileage may vary a lot. I ran into a couple of different skipped cutscenes, a few game crashes, and a particularly nasty case of being knocked into walls by enemies and getting stuck. Game crashes specifically are killers due to the lack of a save. As a disclaimer to the technical bugs that a player may run into, the team at Arrowhead has been extremely proactive and on the ball about crushing bugs as they are known or pop up. I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say they have put out a patch every day since the game has released, with only three exceptions. With that in mind, a lot of bugs that I encountered early in my play have been taken care of already. New bugs have reared their ugly heads since launch; but with the rate that patches are planned and executed, issues and bugs should turn into a small sector of potential problems.
Ultimately, Magicka rises above the few issues that try and hold it down and breaks through as a strong first outing in the fantasy crowd. Magicka would be a bargain at twice the price, and is a wholehearted recommendation for anyone with adventuring fellows looking for an inventive and humorous ride. If you don’t fear the difficulty, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to the solo player either. If for any reason you’re still in doubt, try the free demo on Steam. I can almost guarantee it’ll charm off your lacy wizard undergarments.
Out Of 5
Graphics in this game are surprisingly sharp, and are unique in presentation. I liken it most to a mature turn at an animated children's storybook. Magic effects are of course great, and vary wildly in color, shape and composition based on how you combine your spell. The one thing that holds the visuals up is occasional slowdown when there's a lot of spell effects being tossed around at once, which of course is more prevalent in multiplayer, but not absent from solo.
Sound is covered well throughout the game, from sounds of spells to enemies splitting open in a bloody mess upon death. Ambient noises like fighting throughout a city or torches burning in a dungeon give the game more personality, but the unexpected showstealer is the dialogue. Dialogue may be a strong word for what sounds like exotic European gibberish mixed with intermittent English words here and there, but for this game it definitely works. The worst thing about the sound is that the soundtrack itself was a bit generic when it was noticeable at all.
Control for Magicka is strong, which is important given the conjuring duties laid out before you. The standard mouse and keyboard configuration serves well here, with each element assigned to letter keys Q through R and A through F. The mouse controls movement, and in combination with the shift key, determined whether a spell was casted as a normal attack, AoE, or self-casted. There is also the option to use a controller, in which case selecting different elements is relegated to the right thumb stick, with the remaining buttons laid out in fairly standard convention. Selecting specific elements to call on certain Magicks or conjure up certain spells can be a challenge of dexterity when things get hectic, but the line about necessity and the mother of all invention holds particularly true in those cases.
This is the hardest section for me to score, due to my personal experiences with the game. The core gameplay mechanics in Magicka are outstanding, but I definitely had moments playing solo where I nearly rage-quit after an especially aggravating series of deaths or a game crash forcing me to replay a level I nearly had done. As I mentioned above in the main review though, I'm willing to extend Arrowhead a slight benefit of the doubt due to their honesty and the rate at which they're pumping out fixes for issues.
The game is nothing if not fun (and funny, for that matter). There are great jokes and clever references a plenty, and you can spend most of your time playing trying to figure out just how much of the game references something else. It's almost a game in itself. Add in the inventive take on magic the game introduced, and you've got a product for a great time.