When PC gamers hear the phrase action RPG, one series immediately springs to mind: Diablo. The classic Blizzard titles re-energised the tired RPG market of the late nineties with their heavy combat focus and streamlined plot and character interaction. They also spawned dozens of similar games, from Greek fantasy Titan Quest, to tactical Dungeon Siege, to cheap and cheerful Torchlight. While these games kept the same core mechanics of click-heavy combat, randomised loot and specialised characters, Arrowhead Game Studios’ Magicka takes a much more creative approach, stripping out the RPG elements and adding some adventure.
First of all, there’s not much character customisation to speak of: There are no stats, no character classes, no skills, and little equippable loot. Instead, every player is a mage, able to cast a limitless amount of spells. Instead of choosing to unlock spells with experience points earned through combat, players are able to cast every spell from the beginning of the game, save for a few special Magicks for which a book must first be found. These spells are constructed from up to five choices of the eight basic elements (Fire, Water, Lightning and so on).
For example, Fire and Water can be combined to make a Steam spell, or Earth and Shield to make a Rock Wall spell. You can also choose to cast the spell as a projectile or a beam, as an area-of-effect blast, as an enchantment of your secondary weapon, or even directly on yourself. This degree of variability provides a great deal of freedom in gameplay, as you are able to experiment with different combinations to find the perfect spell for a given situation. It gets even crazier when you play with up to three others in the co-op campaign or challenge missions, as each mage’s spells are free to combine in amusing and often destructive ways.
Magicka’s storyline is also offbeat; while the plot and game world are based on Norse mythology, the game takes a satirical bent, peppering references throughout. You’ll find the THIS IS SPARTA pit, fight KHAAAAAN, meet the Highlander, and much more besides; even the achievements are almost entirely references to internet memes and classic films. The dialogue is hilarious too, delivered in glorious Swenglish with the classic fantasy setting being lampooned at every opportunity. The expansion DLC, Magicka: Vietnam, takes this to a new level with Vietcong-flavoured enemies and period appropriate weaponry. It’s certainly the funniest action RPG I’ve ever played, and does a lot to fill out the otherwise lacklustre storyline.
Like recent action RPG Torchlight, Magicka trades the detailed 2D graphics of the classic Diablo series for basic, brightly colored 3D models. The environments are spartan, with little in the way of exploration or choice, but well designed. A frustrating exception is the game’s reliance on cliffs and water to increase the difficulty level; in some sections it feels distinctly unfair as you shuffle around in the dark, only to get set on fire by a goblin’s arrow and run screaming off a cliff. A later boss battle takes place exclusively on a series of tiny floating islands and features enemies that will blow you off right away unless you get a shield up in time, which seems more annoying than challenging.
Perhaps the greatest effect that Magicka achieves is that the lack of loot and character customisation means that a newer player can be just as successful as an experienced one. As there are no levels or stats to grind; the focus shifts from What are my stats? What equipment do I have? to What spell would be best here? This makes playing an exercise in creativity rather than repetition. Another bonus is that it’s easier to play with friends: instead of grinding to get up to your friend’s level, you only need to ask Oh, that’s a cool spell; how’d you do it? Magicka is proof positive that even in the well worn RPG space, a little creativity will get you a long way.