Recommended Dollar Value: $10 CAD
There’s an old adage: Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. However, in the world of Magicka, the multiplayer action-adventure game from Paradox Interactive, one might say, “Keep your friends at a safe distance, and your enemies trapped inside a dome shield with you as you run around in a panic, trying not to get brutally murdered.” It can hardly be considered advice, but it’s one of the many unfortunate situations a wizard of Magicka is likely to face during their adventures, thanks to the chaotic and often hilarious results produced by the dynamic spell-casting system. Worry not though, young apprentice, as the loading screens will often remind you, “Death is part of the game, just have a friend Revive you!” Besides, they were probably the one that killed you anyways.
The wizards of Magicka weave their spells by combining the following eight elements: Water, Life, Shield, Ice, Lighting, Arcane, Earth, and Fire. Each of these elements are assigned a key on the keyboard, but some additional elements can be created by combining multiple base elements. Pressing an element key will store the respective element in your wizard’s spell queue, which can hold up to five elements simultaneously. Mixing elements together and then releasing them will create a spell, and hopefully, the desired result. Things start to get a little tricky when wizards realize that they can release their spells in one of four different ways: Projectile, Area of Effect, Self, and Weapon. Each type of spell will result in a different effect, even if they used the same elements. For instance, mixing the Fire and Shield elements and then releasing the spell as a projectile will create a wall of fire between you and your enemies, while releasing it on yourself will make you resistant to fire for a short period of time.
The beauty and horror of this system is that the game leaves it up to you to use common sense when mixing and casting spells. Mixing Earth and Fire and then releasing it on yourself will weave the arcane magicks of the universe in a manner that would result in a flaming boulder being summoned into existence above your head, and the rest is up to gravity. However, creative self-termination is an essential part of the experimentation process, and death is part of the game, remember?
Once you develop an understanding of how it all works, casting spells becomes very simple and intuitive, but doing it in combat is another story entirely. Navigating your character around the playing field involves pressing and holding the left mouse button on your desired destination, while the elements are mapped to the familiar WASD region of the keyboard, and the different spell types are executed with the remaining mouse buttons and the Shift key. Trying to cast Haste on yourself while you flee from a pair of cave trolls and dodge arrows fired by a distant group of goblins can often be disastrous. Take your eyes off the screen to correctly input your elements and you’ll likely end up on the wrong end of a giant club. Input the elements too quickly and carelessly and you could light yourself on fire, much to the amusement of the cave trolls. Accidents like this would frustrate me in most games, leading to criticisms of convoluted or complicated controls, but Magicka is different. The button layout is great, and I don’t think I could find one that works better, but more importantly, these accidents are part of what makes Magicka so fun to play. The action is very chaotic and overwhelming, often requiring you to deal with large swarms of enemies, and knowing that you’re one mistake away from a horrible fiery death can be exhilarating. Keeping a cool head and successfully casting your favourite spells in combat is very rewarding.
The action gets even more hectic when you add more players. Magicka features a host of spell combinations that result in greater damage. Shooting lighting at someone is more effective if you’ve sprayed them with water first, and launching a boulder at an enemy can be more devastating if they’re encased in ice. Using these combos can be the most efficient way of dealing with a powerful enemy, but coordinating them with other players can often lead to hilarious mishaps. Blue Wizard announces that he’s going to soak an oncoming troll with water, so Green Wizard prepares to summon a bolt of lighting from the sky. Blue Wizard accidentally casts the water spell as an area of effect, soaking Green Wizard as the lighting bolt strikes from the Heavens. Green Wizard needs food badly.
The action in Magicka unfolds across two game modes, Adventure and Challenge, both of which can be played cooperatively over the Internet or via a local network. The Adventure mode is a light-hearted, story-driven campaign that sees players travel across twelve expansive levels on their way to saving the world. Throughout the campaign, players can collect new wands and weapons that grant them new active and passive abilities, find spell books that contain new and powerful spells, and assist the lowly folk with side quests and other diversions. The adventure mode lasts anywhere from eight to ten hours, but may warrant additional playthroughs in order to collect and accomplish everything. For the more experienced wizards, Challenge mode presents players with a series of arena challenges in which they are forced to overcome waves of enemies in an enclosed space. Challenge mode can be very difficult, and should offer most players plenty of reason to come back.
As wonderful as the gameplay is, the graphical presentation is somewhat lacking by today’s standards. Some of the monsters look nice, if not a little generic, but there is very little variety in the types of monsters that you’ll face throughout the game. The environments suffer from a similar fate by offering a few interesting and colourful set pieces, but generally falling victim to an abundance of reused assets. It’s the spell effects that disappoint me the most, though. They’re not bad by any means, but they’re far from being fantastic, which is what they deserve to be. A few more particle effects and some more dynamic lighting would have gone a long way toward making each spell look truly remarkable. In the end, however, the graphics certainly get the job done, and you probably won’t have much time to sit around and admire the effects of your spells anyway. Unless one of them causes your friends a great deal of misery, because that can be fun to watch.
The sound design is also pretty generic, but is often used to humorous effect. Characters speak with a dialect that sounds like a cross between Simlish from The Sims and the Swedish Chef, with a few specific words sounding just familiar enough to get a laugh. The music is standard fantasy game fare, filled with lyres, lutes, and classical guitars, and while it doesn’t distract from the gameplay at all, it’s also hardly memorable. The grunts, groans, roars, and explosions are all suitable and believable, but like the music, don’t particularly stand out. It’s clear that most of the focus went into developing the fun and challenging gameplay, and it’s hard to fault Paradox Interactive for that.
Magicka is a charming game that takes classic action-adventure gameplay and gives it a unique twist. The spell-casting mechanic is very deep, yet remains intuitive, and gives players a chance to discover their own favourite spells and the strategies in which to employ them. The action is both intense and exciting, and being able to share the experience with friends is fantastic. You will die a lot in Magicka at the hands of enemies, comrades, and sometimes even yourself, but each death will be a story to laugh about later, and in the end: It’s just part of the game.