Large publishers and development houses have grown so risk-averse that fresh gameplay ideas tend show up only in indie games. Magicka is a perfect example - it is a small budget indie title from a small but dedicated team that happened to have a risky but intriguing gameplay idea. So they built a game around it - "A story of Dungeons and Dragons, of Orcs and Goblins, of Ghouls and Ghosts, of Kings and Quests, but most importantly -- of Wizards and... well... A story of Wizards".
Magicka doesn't even try to take itself seriously - the story is one long-running joke that pokes fun at everything that moves. It is 21c3 "An Adventure of Sorts" that takes you through everything you'd expect from a generic fantasy story, complete with immensely predictable twists and turns that put a smile on your face. The story is a perfect match with the hilariously over-the-top action that revolves around the unique gameplay idea of Magicka - a deep and complex spellcasting "combo" system that allows you to improvise up tons of different spells and variations.
Action in Magicka is shown from isometric perspective and I guess you could say that it has some similarities to Diablo series and Titan's Quest. Yet it dials down the amount of hack'n'slash and skips any RPG elements - there are no classes, levels or experience. You are a wizard and Magicka is more of an old school action/adventure where twitch skills, quick thinking and creativity are important.
In addition to the story-driven adventure mode, there is a challenge mode that sets you in an arena with constantly escalating waves of enemies thrown at you. Co-op play works only online and Magicka uses Steamworks integration for multiplayer and Steam achievements but unfortunately omits Steam Cloud saves. Sadly the online play functions are somewhat spartan and most available games seem to be password protected, so multiplayer, while hilarious fun, is mostly for teams of friends playing together.
So You Want To Be a Wizard?
Spellcasting has always been portrayed in fantasy stories as complex and dangerous business that is more of an art form than a science. Magicka manages to translate this idea into a system where you cast your spells by combining up to five spell components (elements) and then directing the spell to apply either to a direction, to everywhere around you, to your weapon or to self. Elements include Water, Fire, Lightning, Stone, Cold, Shield, Arcane and Life. You can further create two additional elements - Steam (Water + Fire) and Ice (Water + Cold).
Different elements can be combined into multi-element spells or you can apply multiple copies of the same element to increase the strength of that element in a spell. Up to five components per spell, ten different elements and four possible target modifiers equals thousands of theoretical combinations. While most of these are just slightly modified or strengthened versions of base spells, there are still hundreds of functionally different spells you can cast.
Elements also work logically - some are polar opposites that cancel each other out (or merge into another element) and some are hazardous to mix together. Spells are also equally hazardous to everything they hit so that nice combo of freezing wet targets is very effective, but it also applies to you - cue hilarity and "accidents" in up to 4-player co-op mode. Yes, Magicka can be played alone just fine but the spellcasting system truly blooms in co-op, especially as friendly fire is not an option you can disable and as multiple spells can be combined even more effectively with multiple wizards working together.
For practical examples as to how it all works, this interview explains it all;
Interview detailing the spell system
You also find unique spells along the way in the form of tomes. These include things like Haste, Time Warp, Teleport, Invisibility, Rain, Meteor Shower, Blizzard and so on - generally they are spells that do not immediately fit the normal casting system - either they affect everything on screen, give an unique effect or summon something. While these spells are also created by combining the elements, a tome is required to unlock the specific combination and the actual cast is done with a special key (space). If you just input the combination and direct the spell at something, you get a normal spell instead.
Your wizard is equipped with a staff and a weapon. There is no inventory system or any other items to collect - whenever you pick a new staff or weapon, old one is dropped. Staffs usually bestow a passive bonus and an active ability while weapons give varying effects when you melee - and yes, you can kill stuff with melee, but being a puny wizard with no muscles to speak of, melee is not a very effective tool when the alternative is to wipe piles of enemies with huge spells.
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