Each January, I take a few moments to decide on which game to ring in the new year with. Since I want to start out on a good note, I generally pick something critically acclaimed or otherwise safe. This year, I went with Demon's Souls, which has earned raves in our forums and all over the gaming community. Since I had intended to play it all along, I avoided trailers, spoilers - even screen shots. So when I finally sat down to enjoy the game, I was floored by the unexpectedly demanding gameplay.
Though I love a good gaming challenge, I was in holiday mode and was really hoping to ease into the year. Out, then, went Demon's Souls (temporarily) and in came a series of games that left me with some self-esteem (it was like the opposite of dating on the rebound). Failure and the new year just shouldn't mix.
When February rolled around, I felt a little bit more in business mode. Luckily for me, I pulled Magicka out of my silk hat. It was back to repeated failures once again!
When all is going well, you have four players laughing, shooting, accidentally blowing each other up, and casting quick revives.
Magicka starts out innocuously enough, as fairy tale narration leads into a classroom scene in isometric view. You play as a student wizard sidetracked into a monumental quest while attending a party. Up to three other players can join you, locally or online, but you should try to invite persistent folk your first time out. Despite its friendly graphic style and whimsical tone, beating this game takes serious wizards, especially if you don't have a full group ("full coven"?).
The most important decision you'll make is probably whether to use a gamepad or a keyboard and mouse. Magicka integrates superbly with the wired Xbox 360 controller, but any USB pad with enough buttons/directions can work. When I first played, I went right for the pad, since I had just finished another PC game and this one looked simple enough. Whereas the default keyboard/mouse setup assigns each each spell to a letter key, casting magic on the 360 controller required limber and generous use of the right analog stick. I had never played anything similar. Considering that most of the time you will want to combine anywhere from two to five spells in rapid succession - and especially considering that some of those are in turn combinations of two parent spells - you want to be sure to balance the advantage of analog character control with the cumbersome casting interface of a gamepad.
Let's start with a simple spell: fire. With the PC setup, you press F to select fire and click the mouse to release the spell, targeting either an enemy, an area (with Shift), a weapon, or your own magician. On the 360 pad, you first press right on the right analog stick to open up a subset of two spells, then down to select fire. Then a trigger/button press later, you have ignition. For more complicated spells or magicks, the second control scheme quickly reveals it limitations. For example, here is the sequence to unleash Vortex, one of the more powerful weapons in the game:
[on the right stick] left -> left-up, right -> right-up, up -> up-right, left -> left-up, right -> right-up, down -> down-right, left -> left-up, right -> right-up.
It's not impossible to pull off in a boss fight, but the M.V.P. of your team will likely be wielding a keyboard and mouse and tapping out the more complex magicks with ease.
Once you pass a short and fun tutorial, you're on the road to true wizardry. Almost anyone you encounter in the game can be killed, either with melee attacks or with any of your dazzling magicworks. Of course, no one's going to follow you casting revive on the smoldering ash piles that started the day as villagers, so choose your targets wisely. It's generally better to speak to the friendly faces, though you might be loot-hungry enough to cross over into the dark side every now and again.
But don't miss out on the talking entirely. Everyone but the narrator speaks this vaguely Swedish-sounding gibberish that never quite gets old, though it can easily be skipped. If you thought your mastery of Klingon was impressive, try for a Ph.D. in Magicka's native tongue. It'd probably get you at least as many dates.
Most of the way is a lighthearted breeze, full of orc slaying, one-liners, and strategic attacks. A lot of the fun is figuring out how different spells interact, what cancels what, what augments what, what to rely on, what to avoid. Two wizards crossing streams of elemental magic can cause a big bang. The trick is not to get caught in it. Players who are wet should avoid playing with lightning - but a quick burst of flame can usually dry them up. Intelligent use of spells and magicks can get you through most of it with nary a scratch, but there is an easy revive spell should one of your team not be able to keep up. When all is going well, you have four players laughing, shooting, accidentally blowing each other up, and casting quick revives. In other words, quintessential video game fun.
A couple of times in Magicka, there's classic game fun of a different kind, especially if you are playing solo or there are only two people teaming up. Some of the bigger battles can get pretty hairy, and if you don't beat a stage all the way through, you'll have to start it the whole stage over again if you quit, no matter how many checkpoints you've activated. But, yes, when I say that's fun, I mean it. Magicka has twelve chapters, each of which might take an hour to beat, so when you step back and consider the product in its entirety, the challenge is just about right. The easier parts are rewarding because they are so enjoyable to mess around in, and the crazier segments make you feel great when you've finally conquered them.
And if you still aren't convinced that Magicka is right for you, consider the fact that it's yours for a paltry $9.99 and stuffed with geek humor (the first line, as I recall, is "Stay awhile and listen"). But as with it's length, price, and difficulty, the game never overdoes its hipness. The most magical part is its balance.