When I reviewed Magicka back in February, I pointed out that the first sentence summed up the entire game – “Magicka is absurdly good fun.” Well, after stumbling against one too many punishing boss fights a few months ago, I put it down, not out of anger or disappointment, but frustration. This week, after being gradually reminded of the game’s brilliant absurdities by various bits of marketing and DLC, I came back to it. After splurging hour after hour on it, drawn in by the fantastic magic system over and over again despite being repeatedly blown up, incinerated, crushed and electrocuted by dwarvish priests, goblin shamans, a vampire, a dragon and my own misplaced clicks, I absolutely love it. “Absurdly good fun”, “a great triumph”, “a giddy joy to play”; after six months, it’s still all this and more.
Most of the time with games, I value a smooth ride more than I do a challenge. I play Total War games, for instance, with the battle difficulty at maximum, but with the campaign settings somewhere in the middle. I don’t find it entertaining to struggle with taxes, rebellions and invasion when my enemies seem to have infinite resources that cannot possibly be obtained strictly by the rules of the game, but instead by an artificial boost for the sake of an additional challenge. I can manage plenty of deaths in something more fast-paced like an FPS, but for the most part I’d rather go through at a reasonable pace so I can experience more content, be it the plot, the levels or otherwise.
Yet with Magicka, I’m being annihilated every other second in some terribly cheap ways, and I’m loving it. Take one boss battle close to the end with a dragon. After being zapped by his nasty fire-ray, which pins you against walls and does damage without a fire shield up, I got better at dodging. Then, after a few more deaths, I find out how to actually hurt the dirty great wyrm, as his weak-spot was on the belly. After a few more deaths, I got into a good routine of zapping, dodging, recharging shield, dodging, zapping, pecking away at his health. Then he stomped about and knocked bits of the floor out, exposing the boiling lava underneath. After a few more deaths, I got the routine going again, but then he did some mind-magic that confused my character, reversing all the direction keys and scrambling the spell set. After a few more deaths, I got the hang of reverse moving and worked out which scrambled keys now restored the essential fire shield I had going on. After a few more deaths, I gave up and went for a walkthrough, but I can’t think of a more entertaining boss fight that I’ve played in a good long while.
Coming back from the walkthrough, armed with a cunning new strategy, I one-shot killed the blighter and proceeded onward.
Here’s the thing: that method was totally legitimate. After defeating Death in a previous chapter, you’re granted the ability to summon up the Grim Reaper at will, which brings about the entertaining spectacle of watching him instantly destroy whoever happens to be near you. Problem is, Death always goes for the target with the lowest health. This is fine in most fights, when there’s plenty of scythe-fodder that you’ve blasted away at waiting to be spirited away to the underworld, but in a one-on-one with a dragon who has a health pool many, many times the size of yours, it’s not such a practical method. The solution? Stand right next to the dragon’s belly, summon up your good pal Death, and teleport away at the last moment before he chops you down. Hey presto, one defeated Dragon.
It seems like a cheat, or at the least an exploit going against the spirit of the game – but it’s not. That’s what I love about Magicka – it’s brutally unforgiving, but there are so many tools at the player’s disposal that there will always be something that is going to defeat the problem at hand, and most often something that completely turns the tables and makes your diminutive little wizard into a complete monster who can annihilate anything (which causes you to utter some highly amusing phrases apt for blog post titles). You just have to find it. Thankfully, whilst you wait, there’s a pyrotechnic display of magical madness going on that is just so much fun.