If Borderlands was a mad inventor’s paradise version of the shooter, then Arrowhead Game Studios upcoming Magicka attempts the same trick for the Diablo-esque co-operative Action-RPG. Injecting a much-needed dose of self-referential genre humour and insane levels of customisability into an otherwise-familiar and well-trodden template. A unique approach to ranged combat and madcap co-operative structure mark it out as one to watch for both PC and XBLA in the coming months. At this stage it’s hardly as polished and streamlined as a Torchlight, but it turns out there’s a reason for that after all.
Set in a fantasy landscape that mercilessly pokes fun at sci-fi and role-playing behemoths and tropes, Magicka is a pseudo-isometric point-and-click (or gamepad, if you prefer) tale of bungling student Wizards on a grand quest to have as much fun as possible and rid the land of an evil tyrant along the way. Told in a bizarre dialect that’s somewhere between Norse legend and Sims-style gibberish, their colourful and playful design extends to the environment and beyond, crafting a world that bounces around the screen in thick outlines, saturated primary colours and an orgy of combat effects.
Magic attacks (the bedrock of your arsenal) are entirely experimental in scope, eschewing the standard clickable icons for a basic free-form alchemy. In essence it’s a system that allows users to combine and dynamically stack elements into five slots and create a unique spell, which can then be further powered-up and unleashed towards a chosen target, yourself, an enemy, an area of effect, or directed at another player. Friendly fire isn’t a toggle, and with four little death-dealers unleashing combinable magic at once, the results promise to be an intriguing mixture of frantic comedy and quick-thinking tactics.
Take your standard-issue fire element as an example. Queueing it up in any of the five spell ‘ingredient’ slots and unleashing a charged attack will cause your robed munchkin to emit a flamethrower effect. But combine that with the ‘arcane’ magic and you suddenly have an analogue-controlled beam of death, capable of charring several foes in a line or activating puzzle solutions from across the room. Splice your beam with water and the area-of-effect trigger and you end up with an effective steam bomb; replace fire with ice and you can freeze lakes or monsters to slide around and smash.
Indeed, the level of quick-draw inventiveness is the real draw in this preview build, and it’s far too easy to lose time simply tooling around and stacking as many different elements together as you can – just to see the results. There are further control complexities to decipher in the form of blocks, shields and melee attacks; but they feel a little unecessary at low levels. Only the full release will be able to tell us whether Arrowhead has attempted to shoehorn too many mechanics into their design, but the promise of players tailoring those controls to their own party ‘role’ and style is an enticing one.
Broken up into challenge and story modes with simple Multiplayer setup, there appears to be enough content here to keep the hardcore happy and the casual players from becoming dissuaded. Whether or not the same rings true of the core gameplay will have to be judged on release, but signs are certainly positive for Magicka to deliver a unique take on the genre.