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DPrime Review: Magicka

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Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Genre: RPG, Action
Platforms: PC
Release Date: 25 January 2011
ESRB: T for Teen (Blood and Gore, Language, Violence)

 

Every now and then, an inexpensive title crops up from under the radar and catches everyone by surprise. Magicka is a game that very much fits into this oft-unheralded category. Its walk-around-and-blast-things gameplay is driven by an original and addictive spellcasting mechanic, and the experience is accompanied by a light-hearted and humorous story that references numerous classic movies. This game doesn’t always play fair, but it rarely ceases to be fun.

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The Narrative

Magicka places you in control of an anonymous wizard whose task is to save the world. Trite? Without question. But there are some rather unexpected quirks thrown in quite often. For one, you are guided by a vampire named Vlad who, for some reason, pretends not to be a vampire, and does a very poor job of it. You are often accused of only getting into fights because you couldn’t talk your way out of them, even though your character is apparently mute. And even though the game’s world is set in your standard, run-of-the-mill fantasy setting, you’ll end up with an M60 machine gun.

This game never pretends to take itself seriously. At launch, it was plagued by a myriad of bugs, most of which have been fixed at the time of this review. But the game seems to be in no hurry to forget that they happened, as right from the get-go, there is a spell in your catalog called “Crash to Desktop” which serves as a tribute to its launch woes. If you cast the spell, it will do exactly as it says. So don’t cast it.

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The Design

But the spellcasting game mechanic is what really keeps Magicka interesting and fun throughout. Whereas most games accomplish spellcasting with a simple “pick a spell, push button to cast” approach, Magicka makes you work for it, in a good way. On the keyboard, the “ASDF” home keys and the “QWER” ones above them are each assigned a different “element”: water, life, shield, cold,  lightning, arcane, earth, and fire. You are provided a five-slot queue which you can partially or entirely fill with an element. You can pull off a quick fire spell with a single hit of its corresponding key and a right click of the mouse. However, you could press the fire key five times before casting to unleash a more powerful and further-reaching attack.

But in addition to these single-element attacks of varying effects, the five-slot queue can also be filled with a combination of elements. Combining fire and earth will allow you to hurl a flaming boulder at your enemies. Using water and shield together will protect you from water attacks. But more importantly, a number of specialized spells can be cast from precise element combinations, and this is where things get very interesting. There are quick two or three-element spells that will accomplish tasks like teleporting or fast movement, but then there are more complex four and five-element spells that can trigger meteor showers or ultra-powerful lightning strikes. Trying to take care of a screen full of enemies while keeping track of these spells can be dizzying, but also thrilling. You’ll feel like you’re punching in consecutive cheat codes to pull off these crazy spells over and over again. Best of all, there is no mana meter that needs replenishing. You can cast and cast to your heart’s content.

But this new and unfamiliar mechanic brings with it a bit of a learning curve. You won’t get very far without training yourself to rattle off some of these spells out of muscle memory. For a little while, just casting fire or lightning will take care of small groups of enemies, but frustration will set in when you can’t get through a lengthy invasion of enemies from all sides without getting more creative with your spellcasting. These moments can also be some of the more satisfying ones when you finally overcome them, but sometimes you’ll just be glad that they’re over.

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There is the occasional cheap death here, as well. If you allow a swarm of enemies to get close enough, they’ll be able to damage you repeatedly, often enough to interrupt any pending spellcasts and preventing you from taking action to better your position. And since your health bar looks identical to that of your enemies’, it is easily lost in the melee, leaving you clueless as to what your situation really is. Worse yet, there are a number of enemies who are able to not only knock your character back, but launch you to the other end of screen, and often off of a cliff. Carefully picking apart a horde of enemies for a lengthy combat session only to be punted off of the screen and into a pit can be extremely frustrating, especially since this will send you back to the sometimes-distant checkpoint.

But you’ll want to think twice about rage-quitting if you still plan on returning after calming down. Quitting in the middle of a chapter will require you to start from the beginning of that chapter when you return. The checkpoints scattered throughout each chapter only function as checkpoints during the session in which they were reached. There is no way to save and return to them or any other point in the chapter at a later time.

Aside from the primary quest, there are challenge maps included with Magicka. These serve as a simple “see how long you can survive” mode as the game sadistically throws wave after wave of enemies at you. They are accompanied by global leaderboards, so the competitive score junkies can find a great deal of replay value here.

Both the campaign and challenge modes can be played cooperatively with up to three other people. While this is a fantastic way to play Magicka, you’re unlikely to find a random group who would participate in this feature. If co-op is your goal, it would be best to plan ahead and have friends ready to go.

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The Presentation

Magicka is played from an isometric aerial view of the comic-like battlefield. Everything is presented with humor and light-heartedness in mind, never taking itself too seriously. In general, the animations are smooth and the sounds effects are appropriate. Nothing is particularly ground-breaking about the way the game looks or sounds, but it is effective enough to maintain the fun factor. However, on occasion, poor optimization will rear its head as the game may stutter and skip while scrolling the landscapes, and it can occasionally get in the way of the gameplay. These occurrences are inconsistent, but they happen often enough to notice.

While making your way through the 10-hour campaign and dealing with its occasional frustrations, you might find yourself coming back for the comic relief alone. While Magicka employs the classic fantasy setting of wizards and trolls, it goes out of its way to identify the ridiculousness of it all. You’ll end up with a machine gun. A machine gun. You can’t help but smile watching your robed magician mow down layers of enemies with a modern automatic weapon while holding a wizard’s staff in his other hand. It’s also kind of fun to play the sadistic role and take out the townspeople as well, as the game doesn’t dish out any penalties for such. It’s just another way that Magicka encourages fun above all else.

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Conclusion

Magicka is only $10. It might lack polish, but there is plenty of content and unexpected enjoyment in this title to justify that price and more. It’s a delightful romp through a fantastically ridiculous fantasy world that will have you laughing out loud. The spellcasting mechanic will test your patience while simultaneously fascinating and satisfying the discerning gamer in you. While the checkpoint system is flawed and you’ll have to stave off the occasional urge to rage quit, you’ll be glad you stuck with it in the end. It’s a shame that the multiplayer community is not so large just yet, but there is time for this little gem to catch on. If you’re a fan of action/adventure RPGs, why not lead the charge on your friend list?

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Matt is a lifetime gamer from his humble beginnings with the Atari 2600. He is also the host of the Default Prime video series, The Bowlingotter Show.
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