Comedy is tough to do in games. You can probably count the number of games that have made you laugh on one three-fingered hand. But games have one advantage over films and books when it comes to making people laugh: the ability to generate funny situations through interactivity. Unscripted hilarity.
This is the backbone of Magicka. The game throws you and three other friends into a hostile monster-filled world with only a sword and, at the start, very little knowledge of how to use some really devastating spells. In the beginning most of the enjoyment you’ll get from this 6-8 hour co-op game is from how hard you’ll fail at it. And fail you will.
Spells are made up of combination of eight elements: Fire, cold, lightning, water, earth, life, arcane and shield. For example, projecting fire will produce a flamethrower effect, while combining fire and earth together will create an exploding fireball.
The elements work like they should. If someone is on fire, a water projectile will put them out. Blasting a monster with lighting is better if you’ve already soaked them with water. In the hands of a master wizard there’s enough depth to do some damage to monsters. You, however, are not that master wizard.
When you start, you’ll be like us, feeling like someone who just picked up 'Spellcasting for Dummies' at Barnes & Noble. First, there are four directions you can use the magic: directly in front of you, in an area around you, directly on yourself, and on your sword. Electrocuting a goblin and electrocuting yourself are one button apart.
Second, all the spells have to be done on the fly and under the stress of hordes of charging monsters. This leads to a lot of humorous mistakes. You’ll be low on health running from a pack of goblins, trying to cast life on yourself to heal some wounds and accidentally set yourself on fire. Or you’ll be trying to save your friend by casting a deadly arcane spell on some ogres only to send out a beam of healing energy to restore their health.
Some spells don’t even make sense. Try casting earth on yourself to crush your little wizard with a boulder. And that’s only you; imagine what your negligent friends could do. It's the perfect game for the Dungeons & Dragons player who only wants to mess around with his friends.
In a way, Magicka seems to be the exact opposite of most games that occupy the fantasy genre. There’s no loot. There are 30 weapons in the game but they act as power-ups, and disappear once your wizard bites the dust. There’s also no leveling-up or mana/magic bars. The game's progression takes the form of player skill and speed in crafting spells, knowing when to use those spells, and how well you and your fellow wizards work as a team. This is a fast game, not a slow journey of self-improvement.
There are super powerful ancient spells to learn, such as revive and meteor shower, but like the rest of game can be used poorly by a beginner wizard. The ancient spell thunderbolt will strike the tallest object on the screen for big damage. And if your fighting short goblins, that means you, genius.
If you’re still reading this then the odds are that you’re not a power gamer. You know, someone who only plays games for a sense of empowerment or progression. Only to level up and “get stronger.” That means you can see value in games that don’t always just pat you on the back and give you things to keep you interested.
Then you’ve got to applaud Magicka for exploring mistakes and failure as things that don’t always have to be bad. Mistakes can be satisfying and even humorous too. Hopefully Magicka can be ported over to Xbox Live or PSN so it can find even a larger supportive audience of gamers that can see the simple joys of lighting friend on fire.