Magicka, the upcoming co-op action role-playing game from Paradox Interactive, is intended to offer fast and frenzied action, but there's so much stuff here, it's actually a bit overwhelming. Between the numerous elemental combinations, different methods of spellcasting, and the persistent friendly fire--all of which are at your disposal upfront--the sheer number of combinations is staggering. However, after spending some time with this Swedish-developed dungeon crawler, we've learned to appreciate the joys of diving deep into the untested waters of arcane lore.
First we dropped into the 13-level campaign mode, which started us out in a nondescript wizard's academy before launching us on an epic journey to save the world--or something like that. Arrowhead has gone to great lengths to make sure Magicka doesn't take itself too seriously, with plenty of witty characters, fantasy satire, and pop culture references. But the game's real draw lies in its complex spellcasting system. Composed of eight spell elements--including water, arcana, lighting, and shield--this system allows you to mix and match different elemental combinations in various ways to create a staggering number of abilities. All eight of these elements are introduced early on in the campaign, but it's up to you to discover all their deadly secrets.
As we might have expected from a fantasy hack-and-slash game like this, we eventually ended up surrounded by goblins. A handy combination of arcana and fire produced a beam of energy that caused our little green friends to explode into a bloody fireball upon dying. As we advanced, a couple of beefy trolls decided to block our path. First we doused them with the water element, and then we froze them solid with the cold element, before finally shattering them to bits with a fully charged earth element. Deadly combos such as this are handy for dispatching hefty foes, but you also have to be careful not to blast your fellow wizards as well. But every so often, it's impossible to avoid a little collateral damage, especially once the fireballs start flying. Thankfully, a simple revival spell can bring a fallen friend back into the action.
With the trolls in pieces, our next challenge was a powerful goblin shaman and his massive army of minions. Magicka won't hesitate to send hordes of enemies after you, which means that even the most carefully coordinated assault can quickly end up as an all-out free-for-all. A torrent of flashy spells and tiny goblin axes soon enveloped us, and before we knew it we were back at the last checkpoint. Since Magicka doesn't have any experience levels, skill points, or gold to worry about losing, there is little to fear from death. You do, in fact, find loot like swords, staves, and spell tomes that you can take with you as you progress.
Outraged by this defeat, we decided to vent our frustrations in the game's challenge modes. These four areas pit aspiring arcane masters against numerous waves of enemies. The intimate size of these stages also makes friendly fire commonplace--which only compounds the chaos. You start off with all the spell elements in the game and quickly amass additional spells and loot by defeating hostile treasure chests. We quickly noticed that casting more powerful spells caused our wizard character to move more slowly. Take too long to power up, and your relatively weak wizard is toast, but relying only on cheap, weak spells isn't going to win the day, either.
Magicka is a game built around cooperative multiplayer. While you can play the game by yourself, it seems a lot more frantic and a lot more unpredictable with some allies by your side, especially when the friendly fire starts flying. And while the game is set for a digital release solely on the PC, with both local and online four-player co-op support, developer Arrowhead Games isn't ruling out the other platforms just yet. Between its witty charm and frantic gameplay, Magicka should tap into the sinister sorcerer in each of us. You can look for the game in January 2011.