Magicka might just be the surprise hit of 2011. This $10 action-oriented role-playing game features catchy spellcasting and a lighthearted story that riffs on everything from Monty Python to Star Wars. Not all is rosy with the bargain game, however, as the laughs fall flat at times due to a ton of launch bugs and associated gameplay oddities that make some of the abracadabra stuff a little annoying. Publisher Paradox has at least admitted to the problems and is busily releasing patches to get everything up to snuff, but the many problems are impossible to overlook right now and prevent the game from receiving an unqualified recommendation.
You play an unnamed wizard that is out to save the world and must do so by slaughtering thousands of creatures in the usual Acme brand fantasy realm. Magicka has a cartoonlike whimsy. Visuals are bright and colorful, with the outdoor scenery turned into the sort of lush green fantasyland that you might see painted on the walls of a kindergarten classroom. Mages in the game are also straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon, with deep hoods and big pointy hats obscuring their faces. Characters speak in a quirky language that sounds like The Muppets' Swedish Chef on 78 RPM. And the music is sufficiently bombastic, as if you're dealing with an epic that recounts the travails of a legendary hero.
Sound predictable? It is, but the saving grace here is a good sense of humor. Constant references are made to the fact that you're playing a game. Dialogue boxes break the fourth wall all the time, making fun of you for bothering to examine items in the background of such a straightforward hack-and-slash game or just throwing out nudge-nudge, wink-wink references to pop-culture tropes. Nothing here is too obscure or all that funny--unless you get a kick out of such things as a guy telling you "There is only war" outside of "Garm's Workshop," or offering another offhand observation that "Only goblins are so precise." Still, even without any outright guffaws, it's nice to play an easygoing and whimsical RPG that doesn't take itself seriously.
Gameplay stands out more than the story. Although the role-playing aspect of the game has been stripped to the essentials, the action is captivating even without such amenities as being able to pick a class, keep an inventory, track mana, level up, and so forth. Here, all you really do is run around and cast spells to kill bad guys in the eight-hour campaign, either solo or cooperatively with up to three friends. Or you can do so in an arena Challenge mode where you try to survive as long as possible. But you don't just point and click; instead, the magic system is based on a core set of elements, such as lightning, fire, earth, water, cold, and so forth, that are accessed by clicking on keys. So you cast something basic like a lightning bolt by hitting a key to ready the spell and then click the right mouse button to fire it off. Combos are also possible, and they can be learned either by experimenting or collecting spellbooks during the campaign that provide the formulas for magic stand-bys like haste.
Messing around with various combos is entertaining just to see what might happen, as you generally either fry yourself by accidentally combining opposite elements or come up with something supercool like a shield made out of water. Spell effects are environment sensitive, too, so it's not a great idea to blast off any lightning bolts when standing in water. Having so many possible spells gives the game some replay value because you can always discover new incantations that make it worthwhile to go back and toast monsters in different ways. Playing cooperatively reveals even more of the strengths of the magic system. There, you can cast area-effect spells that emphasize teamwork and give you virtually unlimited options when it comes to tackling big fights and boss battles.
Magicka is good fun, especially for its great bargain price. Most of the time. Bugs and other idiosyncrasies get in the way of the magical mayhem right from the start. Crashes occur every so often that drop you to the desktop without warning. A fair number of oddities can halt the campaign in its tracks. Sometimes the haste spell doesn't work in the tutorial; casting it tends to just set you on fire and makes it rather tough to run past a wall crusher that presses you into a blood sausage. Going online to play cooperatively can be a real pain. Connecting is troublesome; sometimes, you just can't keep a stable connection. Also, there are no restrictions on attacking allies. So if you get into a game with a stranger or three over the net, you can find yourself stuck with idiots who murder you more often than the monsters. Because there is no player-versus-player mode here, turning off friendly fire would solve this issue if there were an option to do so.
Battles tend to be chaotic mob affairs that wreak havoc with the minimal interface. It's great not to deal with a big stat screen; it's not so great that the tiny health bar below your character often gets so obscured by gangs of monsters that you lose track of your hit points and get killed. Enemies sometimes retreat offscreen where you can't follow but continue to attack with ranged weapons or get stuck. This can cause you to have to restart a level in spots where you have to clear away all foes to open the road ahead of you. At other times, you will kill every bad guy, but the fight music continues to play and the game simply won't let you move forward. Boss battles can be very annoying at times as you often get hemmed into tight spots and held there while being pummeled mercilessly. Making these problems even more irritating is the absence of a proper save-game feature. Saving is automated here via checkpoints that only work during your current play session, and even then, they send you a long way back whenever you're killed. There's nothing quite as aggravating as having to repeat a boss battle and the three or four scraps leading up to it. And if you shut down to take a break, you're sent back to the start of the level. Because there are a lot of tough fights here--including more than a few against enemies with devastating magic and ranged attacks that can turn out your lights in the blink of an eye--this results in a lot of unnecessary and annoying repetition.
Magicka is a hard game to recommend without reservation. But even though the technical issues get in the way right now, you can almost ignore these problems due to the sheer fun of hammering out spells on the keyboard in the goofball campaign. Paradox also seems dedicated to fixing the glitches. Updates are installed just about every time you fire up the game, so hopefully, it will be running smoothly in the near future. If you can exercise a little patience with the bugs, you'd do well to try out this innovative, exuberant RPG.