Like most of you, I have watched enough Magica game play videos to make me want to check it out. I picked it up on the cheap during one of Valve’s countless steams sales because that’s what you do these days.
Let me stop this review for a second and talk about Valve and Steam. Few years ago, if I wanted to try a game I wasn’t really into, but which looked interesting for some reason I would just pirate it. These days, I find that if I procrastinate long enough, that game it will end up on a Steam sale in the sub-$20 price range sooner or later. I have disposable income and I will buy a shitty game just to give it a whirl, but only if the price is right. Valve makes the prices right, and by extension they make me into a more responsible digital citizen of the internet. Hey, Ubisoft and EA – are you taking notes? Valve is accomplishing the thing you have been trying to do for years now – and they are not using technology – they are using standard economics and marketing principles. What a novel idea, eh?
But this was supposed to be about Magica – a game that looks like it would be ridiculously fun to play… For about two hours, and then it would probably get old. Which is about how much I got from the game. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should probably explain what Magica is. If you have been living under a rock (as I know some of you do) you probably haven’t heard about a small independent dev shop known as Arrowhead Game Studios releasing a fun little bundle of digital entertainment that caught the internet by fire. Well, at least the parts of the internet that I visit. The non-porn parts of the internet I visit. Don’t judge me!
Paradox Interactive picked it up, and it ended up being an exclusive Steam release for PC. The rest, as they say, is history. Kinda like PC gaming I guess… I kid, I kid! Stop hitting me kids. I am now and forever a proud member of the Glorious PC Gaming Master Race – but you really can’t deny most of the big mainstream game distribution studios no longer consider PC as their primary target platform and almost none release games exclusively for PC – something that was common just a few short years ago.
So PC gaming environment is in a weird state of flux these days. A lot of big companies are distancing themselves away from it, and a lot of small indie studios are moving in making things that would be too risky and to quirky to be ever made by one of these huge corporate behemoths. Thanks to the wonders of digital distribution (which the behemoths still struggle with) these small firms can step up to the plat without major initial investment. So we get games such as Minecraft, Amesia: Dark Descent and… Well, Magica. All fun, innovative and interesting in their unique own ways. Magica’s claim to fame is the very unique spell casting mechanic.
You play as a robed wizard (I know, a shocking twist considering the title) and you have to rescue the world from some evil sorcerer or something. When you launch the game it actually gives you like a 5 minute intro in with a fully voiced narrator explains the back-story. In my honest opinion this was a monumental waste of time and money. As much as I gripe about storytelling video games, sometimes you don’t need a back-story cut-scene. Especially when the rest of the story is just a long list of Terry Pratchet and Mony Python references. This game is just too silly to have a deep-voiced narrator guy set it up.
When I see something like this I always think back to the scrolling beat-em-up arcade games of the early 90′s. When I was about 11 or 12, I used to spend an obscene amount of spare change playing titles such as Asterix or Cadilacs and Dinosaurs. These titles did not bother with explanations – they would give you a few second setup, and got your into the action and that was all that was needed back then. Did I care why the Gaul’s were fighting with the Romans? Or why there were dinosaurs in the future? Nope. All I needed to know was that there were bad guys out there, and that that they desperately needed to be pummeled down. Magica is very much like that – when it boils down to it, you get these very linear levels, and your mission is to get from point A to point B with hordes of hostile monsters and enemies in the middle. Just instead of 2D view it is isometric, and instead of punching dudes you magic them away. Perhaps the folks who made Magica are to young to remember 2d side scrollers and they sort of made one by accident. It is clear that their inspiration was Diablo like hack & slash titles – they use the same isometric perspective, and similar mouse control scheme for walking and hitting things with a sword. The game however has no inventory, no loot management and no quests. Well, there is that one NPC with a yellow exclamation mark over her head, but then it falls off and it’s embarrassing for everyone. So Arrow Game Studions set out to make a Torchlight parody and ended up making an isometric side scrolling beat-em-up. With magic. Funny how that works out.
The unique game mechanic I keep mentioning, is how you cast spells. Instead of giving you a list of pre-made spells, Magica gives you a list of elements such as Fire, Water, Earth, Lightning and etc. Each of these elements is bound to a keyboard key (QWER, ASDF and ZXCV). Pressing any of these keys will make a little colorful ball of magic appear over your head. You can have up to five of these just flying around. Then you can use a mouse key to cast whatever you queued up for yourself. So for example if you press F (for fire) once, then release it with your mouse you will end up spraying a small cone of fire from the end of your wizard staff. If you spam five F’s and then release it, you will spray a huge cone of fire. And if you combine Fire and Earth you will end up with a fire ball (flaming stone projectile really, but that’s just semantics). To make things even more interesting, the way you release the spell matters too. Left mouse button will usually aim the spell at where your mouse is (or in that general direction). Shift and LMB will turn the spell into an area of effect attack (centered on you), and middle mouse will cast the spell on yourself (useful for healing spells). You can combine any of the 10 elements mixing and matching them for their different properties and Arrowhead made damn sure that almost all possible combos have interesting and logical effects – except some instances where two elements nullify each other (like fire and water). You can custom design spells for any occasion. You need to block a bridge with a stone wall that deals out lava damage? No problem – just combine earth, shield and fire. You need to cross a river? Freeze the water with your cold spell.
In other words, you get to create your own spells, and the game encourages you to be creative and experiment with different combinations. And its a blast for about two hours. After that point two things happen. Firstly, you get used to the magic system and you figure out the most optimal battle spells. Early on, you will probably do a lot of experimentation and attempt to dispatch your foes with all kinds of crazy magic feats. Eventually however you will notice that some things are more effective than others – with respect to how damage output, and how easy they are to queue up and cast. So you end up with a list of favorites, top of which is usually “spam area of effect fire all the time”. That’s just how it works out. Around the 2-3 hour mark, the game stops babying you with small groups of easily crowd controlled enemies and starts throwing bad-ass dudes at you. This includes monsters that can jump over your barriers, other mages that can nullify your spells and ruin your day with their own, cursed weapons that prevent your from healing and etc.. So combat goes from fun and experimental, to frantic and frustrating life or death struggle. And it really doesn’t help that Magica is really meant to be played as a four person co-op.
Yep, it is one of these games. You know, ones that assumes that the problem with most single player games is that they are not social enough. Like most co-op centric products, it has no save system, but uses “chapters” instead. Once you complete a chapter, you unlock the next one, and you can pick it as a starting point on a subsequent plays. It also has some mid-level checkpoints, but these are not preserved when you quit the game. As you can imagine this can be quite frustrating – especially if the amount of time you are willing to spend playing the game is limited.
After playing few chapters, I started to suspect that Magica does not actually vary the number of foes it throws at you with respect to how many players are present. I was playing alone, and in the later chapters I felt completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of mobs on the screen at all times. It felt like it was never really meant to be played alone. After the wonderful honeymoon of creative spell casting is over, you are almost forced to fall back on your finely honed MMO instincts. This game has a whole range of tanking spells (shields, armors, physical barriers) and pure ranged DPS spells, but it is often hard or impossible to use all these types at the same time, especially when you are also healing yourself. A well coordinated team can probably breeze through the levels while still having a blast – but playing by myself I was struggling.
Which is why I got bored with it. It is great when a game has a good co-op mode, but if it does offer single player mode without making it actually easier then I consider this a flaw. When you mix that with a non-existed save system, it becomes a deal breaker.
Then again, perhaps it was the jokes that killed it for me. As I mentioned before, sometimes story and plot are not important. Some games do not need them at all. Minecraft for example does not need any plot or story – and if Notch at some point decided to add an official intro about some evil wizard who created all the zombies and creepers I think it would actually make his game less enjoyable. It would be even worse if every item in the game had a joke description with a pop culture reference. Magica is kinda like that – everything you can click on, is probably some groan worthy attempt at a joke. There is a red fish in that fishing village – “It looks like a red herring”. Ugh…
I think that Arrowhead really wanted their game world to feel like a Terry Pratchet novel. The problem is that Pratchet is a very eloquent wordsmith, and his jokes tend to revolve around clever and subtle wordplay, and keen observations about absurdities of daily human interactions. Arrowhead writers on the other hand, like to use humor the way you would use a double handed war hammer of doom – their joke delivery is fierce, unceremonious and violent. And I’m not some humor snob either – I’m amused by stupid internet memes. But Magica had me groaning in pain every time it tried to land a joke. Which was on average once a minute or so.
Still, I don’t hate this game. I think it is entertaining and has a rather innovative gameplay which is marred by the co-op focus. If you have a few buddies who have nothing better to do, and who can stomach the stupid jokes, it could be a lot of fun. I don’t regret paying for it. I think it was worth the few bucks, even if I only played it for about 5-6 hours before getting bored with it. Perhaps I revisit it one day and try the co-op mode. I just have to remember to stick to the combat and not click on anything that looks like it could be setting up a horrible, horrible joke or reference.