All the wizards are dead. It’s been a few decades since the events of Magicka, Arrowhead’s co-op action caster, and after the bloody Wizard Wars, all the magically inclined minions of chaos have popped their clogs. But actually they haven’t, because a whole batch of new wizards have taken up the mantle of feckless hero in an attempt to stop a rising evil in Magicka 2.
It’s Pieces Interactive at the reins now, and studio’s gone all out to capture the mayhem and mania of the original Magicka. The game’s zones, beaches, caves and idyllic forests are saturated in fire and corpses, and gosh won’t someone think of the lightly toasted children?
So. The big question. Is this second (third, if you count Wizard Wars) date able to reignite the spark? Is there still magic in Magicka?
Relationship Status: It’s Complicated.
The chaos of Magicka 2 is a double-edged sword. A double-edged sword that’s been set on fire. It’s the source of everything that’s great about the game, and everything that’s drained the fun from the exceedingly short experience.
Magicka 2 is essentially a combination of both the previous games. It’s the co-op dungeon crawl featuring four wizards and a linear campaign of the original game, laced with improvements like the ability to cast spells and move at the same time of Wizard Wars. It should be familiar to anyone who has played either, or both, and I’m not going to be a silly grump and tell you that this familiarity breeds contempt, because the formula is still rock solid.
Let me get you up to speed if this is all new to you. Magicka is all about the absurdly deadly spells, and the potential for heaps of experimentation. Each wizard has access to a powerful arsenal of spells, covering the elements along with life, shield and death spells. Select fire, right click, and you become a human flamethrower. Select shield, right click, and you’ll drop down a wall of energy that deflects beams of magical energy. Simple, right?
No. You’re completely wrong. So wrong, in fact, that for the rest of the review you’re going to sit in the corner with a pointy hat. It is not, in case you were wondering, a wizard’s hat.
You see, the eight basic spells can be combined to create entirely new spells, and cast in different ways for dramatically different effects. Click the middle mouse button after selecting shield, and you’ll cast it on yourself instead of making a wall. Combine it with rock and right click, and you’ll make a stone wall instead of one made out of pure energy.
I couldn’t possibly list all of the potential combinations or effects, but suffice it to say that there are absolutely loads and you will probably forget them over and over again as you attempt to cast them in a panic when you’re burning to death because your so-called friend has just started electrocuting you because they’re a complete dick.
Friendly fire is always on in Magicka, and since a large number of spells and spell combos bathe entire areas in fire and lightning, even if you aren’t aiming for a chum, there’s a very good chance that you’ll kill them anyway. And that’s great. It’s part of the charm. It’s not about getting the most kills or the least deaths, but about playing with the incredibly flexible spell system. And trolling people.
A few tweaks have been made to this system, mostly in Wizard Wars, and Magicka 2 continues them. Some spells work differently, one base spell has been completely removed, and now wizards can cast on the go. That last thing, it’s brilliant. The ability to chase an enemy while maintaining your assault or retreat while still firing death rays is a massive boon, and anyone who says otherwise is probably so obsessed with purity that they are a Targaryen.
Another feature carried over from Wizard Wars is the Magicks system. Magicks are particularly powerful, complex spells that are unlocked as wizards progress through the game. Spells that revive the dead or summon skeletal pals to assist. These spells all have cooldowns, but you can actually cast them whenever you want. So you can hit 4 and revive a chum, but if it’s on cooldown, you can just combine life and lightning and it has the same effect.
When you’ve got four wizards all casting these completely over-the-top spells, one summoning a snowstorm, another calling down dragon strike, the other two crossing their death beams to make a SUPER ULTRA DEATH BEAM, then things become gloriously mad.
On paper, this all sounds amazing. I’m reading it now and thinking, “Bloody hell, I want to play more Magicka 2.” The problem is that this wonderful chaos also seems to have infected the design, where it’s no longer wonderful, where it becomes a design flaw.
I couldn’t get through a single chapter – there are nine, and it takes about four hours to get through them – without being frustrated by something that seems like such an obvious mistake. The issues start right at the beginning. It’s immediately clear that the UI is abysmal. Massive chunks of text cover up portions of the screen, often appearing in the middle of a fight. The spell bar is rather large, as well, and frequently hides both wizards and enemies under it. It’s a wonder that the chat bar doesn’t just appear in the middle of the screen, and is actually hidden when nobody is typing.
The clutter extends to enemies and spells, too. They look great, but ultimately they get in the way of identifying what’s going on in the screen. It’s so easy to lose track of not just allies but even your own wizard, and in every area, enemies just pour out from every side, swarming the foursome until it’s just a mess of bodies and magic. I died a lot because I was stupid or because I was fooling around, but mostly I died because I couldn’t see what was going on.
When it’s not the UI causing problems, it’s the camera. It seems like it’s fixed to the host, which means other wizards will often be left behind or stuck behind scenery, and enemies frequently start attacking even before they’ve appeared on the screen.
More egregious than any of that, however, is the fact that the multiplayer is mostly, well, rubbish. Okay, that’s maybe a bit unfair. If you’re playing with three friends over Skype, or what have you, it can really be great. You work together, combining spells, controlling the battlefield, and have a laugh as you freeze each other or surround a mate with mines.
If you’re playing with a pick-up group, though, chances are that you’re going to have a bad time. Here’s a fun fact for you: I only caught about half of the story the first time I played through the campaign. It’s silly rather than clever; a string of pop culture references and ham-fisted satire that still manages to elicit giggles because it’s plain to see how much fun the writers had. It’s infectious. Unfortunately, every cutscene can be skipped, and if one person opts to skip it, then nobody gets to see it.
Can you imagine? There’s no vote, no way to stop it from happening. And, even worse, when cutscenes end, you’re invariably in a different place (absent any beneficial spell effects that may have been on you, maddeningly). I lost count of the number of times a cutscene would be skipped and I’d then find myself standing right next to a hulking boss who immediately attacks me and kills me in one blow.
There’s no way to refine the search for a group. You can select the chapter you want to play and the difficulty, but then the matchmaking does its thing and dumps you in a game. Usually in media res, so you’ll probably miss the start of the chapter. There are no game lists, no way to tell if the group is in it for the story or is just trying to unlock new gear and artefacts.
God forbid you disconnect (you will) or get randomly kicked from a group (you will), because then you’ll lose all of your progress in that chapter, and have to start from the beginning. The only saving grace is that each chapter is exceedingly short, and you’ll not be stuck grinding your way through old areas for very long.
Not only are the chapters small and few, they are dreadfully dull. A forest with elves! A beach with crabs! A cave with crabs! Another forest but this time it has a village! Short, linear and immediately forgettable. It’s the things that are attacking you, I suppose, that are of greater import. These people and beasties are as aesthetically dull as the areas they inhabit – boilerplate elves, orcs, dwarves and the like – but are at least mechanically interesting.
Foes are blessed with immunities to specific elements, but also cursed with weaknesses that can be exploited. The only way to know what these are, of course, is by experimenting with different spells. And they all have different combat styles. Some will rush the wizards, attempting to get into melee range, while others happily stand back launching bombs or firing off their own spells.
Most battles involve different types of enemies, so you shouldn’t be able to just spam the same spells over and over again and come out victorious. In reality, you can definitely do that. One group of wizards I played with did nothing but call down big bursts of dragon's fire, occasionally chucking in some death magic, and we just sauntered through the game without once having to think about tactics or teamwork.
The difficulty is just all over the place. For a solo wizard, the game’s near impossible. Not just because it’s so bloody hard, but because there are multiplayer puzzles and playing alone is so mind-numbingly boring that it’s tempting to just give up. But with a full compliment of wizards – all able to revive each other by simply pressing, at most, two buttons – it’s almost impossible to fail on all but the most challenging difficulties. There’s rarely a threat, and even rarer is there a need to try out new spells or explore the system’s full potential.
You really need to make your own challenge in Magicka 2. That’s where artefacts and the Challenge Mode, where wizards tackle waves of enemies in small arenas, come in. Each chapter of the campaign has a large number of unlocks, some of which will net wizards new gear, but also artefacts that change the game in, sometimes, dramatic ways.
These inspire multiple attempts at each chapter, since some of the unlockable stuff is well hidden, and the artefacts can also change how each chapter plays out, so it doesn’t feel quite as repetitive as playing through the same, short nine levels should. The artefacts can also be used in the Challenge Mode, and and it’s probably where Magicka 2 is at its most silly. Imagine: four massively overweight wizards fighting massive waves of highly flammable monsters that explode every time they die. Also, the monsters are as fast as The Flash.
A lot of great ideas, both old and new, have been thrown into Magicka 2, and that’s also why I’ve been a bit disappointed. There are parts of a great game in there, but the way they’ve been stitched together isn’t always very well thought out. In fact, it rarely seems thought out at all. This is a finished game – though Pieces is making fixes and improvements, most recently adding a much needed way to rebind the keys – but it feels more like an Early Access title. It’s a bunch of concepts tossed together, in great need of feedback and playtesting.
With care and attention there’s hope for Magicka 2. Patches and DLC could fill in gaps and deal with the game’s brevity, but it’s hard to recommend based on that assumption. At the moment it’s functional, sometimes fun, but only something that should really be considered if you’ve got three chums who are guaranteed to play with you. Even then, you might be better off with the original Magicka and its slew of DLC or Wizard Wars, which is free-to-play.