Magicka – PC Game Review
Magicka. PC Game. Publisher: Paradox Interactive. Developer: Arrow Head Studios. $9.99.
Passed Inspection: Simple. Fun. Addictive. There’s a real Old School feel about the game.
Failed Basic: Old School games have their downside. Gameplay can be frustrating. Some spells appear not to work as advertised. Exiting the game forces a restart of a level.
Cute + humor + game is normally a losing formula in my book. Games that try to be funny rarely succeed, and as for cute…well, that just ain’t my style. However, for the last several months I’ve been watching the development of Magicka with interest. The cute and humor implied in the artwork were not encouraging, but the concept of mixing magic to discover new spells was intriguing. Fortunately, I was to be pleasantly surprised.
The mechanics of the game are simple. The player wanders through the scrolling map by clicking and holding the left mouse button. Objects in the game can sometimes be interacted with: signs can be read, people can provide comments or advice. The voices sound like they could be in Swedish, but I don’t know.
As the player wanders through the world he will be attacked by various creatures and will need to defend himself. The player is given eight different kinds of base magic: water, healing, defense, cold, lightning, arcane, earth, and fire. Most of these base powers can be combined with each other (up to five slots exist), but a few cancel each other out. Obviously, fire and water cancel each other. However, if your wizard gets wet, fire will dry you out if you cast it upon yourself. Interacting with the environment, a river may be crossed by casting cold on it and freezing it. Ice may be thawed with fire. Combining the magic can result in some strange results, but some of them quite satisfying. Unsurprisingly, as the game progresses spells that worked well against one enemy will be of little use on another, so players are encouraged to explore new combos as the game goes on. Also lacking is an inventory management system. Early on the player will find a staff of ice which provides immunity to cold. The problem is it’s an area effect staff, and any monsters within its radius also enjoy immunity to cold, so the player is challenged to keep enemies at a distance. Infrequently new items will appear on the map and the player has a choice as to whether to take them. Unfortunately, no explanation is given as to what the new item does though the name usually suggests a purpose, though it’s sometimes difficult to see the impact in the game. There is some downloadable content which may soon be made available, but Magicka isn’t an RPG. It’s an action/adventure game built with an Old School flair.
Magicka begins with an in-game tutorial which doesn’t take long and does teach the basics of the game. However, there is no documentation. During the tutorial phase the player is instructed as to which powers work well together and which don’t, but if you weren’t taking notes that knowledge is lost. Fire and water were easy enough to remember, but what was I supposed to avoid mixing arcane magic with? I don’t remember. In between encounters the player can experiment, but having a pencil and paper handy may be useful.
Fortunately encounters in the game are spaced geographically. The game encourages experimentation, and because you don’t have to immediately walk up to the next encounter you can take a breather to play around with new combos. Periodically the player will find a spell book which will provide a new spell (combo), but in practice the icons are hard to see and sometimes seemed like they didn’t work right. Each type of magic is bound to a key, so F+D (fire + earth) followed by a right click on the map will unleash a fireball. In the midst of a battle I found myself often franticly mashing letter combinations on the keyboard. F + F + F + D makes for a BIG fireball (four Fs will end up making it so big that I was often caught in the explosion, so care should be taken in playing with fire). Sometimes I’d miss a key and a spell might fizzle. Or do something unexpectedly cool, causing me to wonder, “Where did that come from?”
Perhaps the biggest negative about the game is how progress is saved. Games are only saved at the end of a chapter. There are checkpoints in the game which allow the player to restart further in a game than the beginning, but only if the game is still running. If the player exits the game, the entire level must be started over.
I found a workaround. I would pause the game (Escape key brings up a menu), then alt-tab out. This method worked very well, and I was able to keep the game running for several days, including putting my laptop in hibernate, then restored the game without issue. Many of the boss level encounters are challenging, and it can be very frustrating to get beaten two or three times in a row. The inability to save in-game combined with replaying encounters several times sometimes caused me to almost pull my hair. However, the workaround of pausing the game and doing something else (like writing this review) meant that I didn’t lose all my progress and helped to overcome an issue that, bluntly, seems like a design flaw. Magicka clearly tries to recreate a retro feel, but there’s a reason why in-game saves are popular these days. That is one throwback experience I can do without.
The humor in the game is actually not too bad. Some of it falls flat, such as when one villager asked my wizard why he was wearing a bathrobe. Others can be somewhat amusing. During the later stages of the tutorial the player will encounter an iconic figure from Dungeons & Dragons, something that is clearly a Beholder. However, the game says, “Behold, the watcher!” That drew a smile from me. There are tips shown as the game loads, and one reads, “Did you know that tips are show while the game is loading?” I like self-deprecating humor. The game never takes itself too seriously, and it strikes a good balance as it does so.
There are several modes of play. There is an adventure, where the player wanders through the world encountering different adventures as he goes. The plot is on rails, but this works. A “Challenges” game exists where the player simply faces wave after wave of monsters and tries to survive. There is also a multiplayer mode which I haven’t tried yet. However, in reading the Steam forums, some gamers are having problems getting the multiplayer game to work, and others are encountering significant lag problems upon success. Being that the game is published by Paradox, it isn’t uncommon that a game will be released with significant bugs. The good news is that Paradox has a strong track record of patching games and squishing pretty much every bug, and their reputation is such that they continue to support their games well beyond simply fixing them. New features and improvements are often found years after a title is released, so Magicka may end up having some endurance on gamer’s hard drives. We’ll have to see.
Within just a few days of Magicka’s release the game had already sold 30,000 copies and was briefly the #1 seller on Steam, beating some AAA releases. As this review goes into publication it is still in the top five best selling games on Steam. Some of that success probably came from the price point – the game is very inexpensive relative to other new releases.
As I noted above, combining cuteness and humor in a game is usually a big red flag for me, but Magicka succeeds in a way that is surprisingly satisfying. The gameplay is simple, the humor can be funny and if it falls flat it does so in a way that is inoffensive. The graphics are cute in a suave retro way, and the underlying mechanic of combining powers is actually quite satisfying. Magicka isn’t a deep, complex game, but it is a satisfying and mindless game (in a good way). Players looking for something that’s new, different, and won’t break the bank should check out the game. There is a demo on Steam, but just watching the trailer on Steam will give gamers a good idea of gameplay, but perhaps the best interpretation of how the game plays is a YouTube video recently released which pretty much nails it. All those lightning bolts and explosions are created by figuring out the right combination of powers and if frantically mashing keys to unleash the raw magic of the universe is your thing, then you’ll want to add Magicka to your spellbook.
Armchair General Rating: 88%
About the Author
Jim Zabek has been crafting spells since middle school. He briefly entertained becoming a Ninja, but after the mishap with some poorly place caltrops and the stampede at the zoo, he decided that spell casting was a more appropriate career path. These days he can be found walking the planes and assisting those hapless NPCs in need.