Developed by Pieces Interative. Published by Paradox Interactive. Released May 26, 2015. Available on PC and PlayStation 4. Review copy provided by publisher.
I absolutely adored the original Magicka. On the surface it was a humorous parody game filled with fantasy tropes and pop culture references. But under its hood was a powerfully robust magic system that let any wizard to become a god among men – when used correctly. Unfortunately players are generally as fallible as the wizards themselves, so what usually happened is one spellcasting disaster after another until everyone was in hysterics. Watching the chaos unfold was one of Magicka‘s greatest pleasures, even if you wiped out yourself, your team, and the surrounding village.
Now after a diversion into MOBAs with Wizard Wars, Paradox Interactive has returned to its co-op roots with Magicka 2. For Magicka fans, expectations are high. After all, this is one of Paradox’s most popular games even as it racks up accidental player kills – that’s a hard act to follow.
The good news is all of Magicka‘s co-op gameplay, chuckle-worthy humor, and unfolding chaos is included here, as are improvements that will delight long-time fans. But on the flip side, Magicka 2 might actually be too similar to its predecessor. Outside of visual and UI overhauls, there’s not a lot differentiating this particular campaign from previous DLC expansions. It’s not Magicka 2 as much as Magicka 2.0, an upgrade to old gameplay instead of a product that breaks new ground.
Thankfully, when it comes to Magicka, more of the same isn’t bad… as long as you have a Revive magick handy.
Magicka 2 opens forty years after the events of Wizard Wars, where the constant battles and resurrections destroyed all magical orders and left the survivors reeling from spellcasting side-effects. With the wizards effectively destroyed, humanity has entered a new golden age where no one need fear their villages and crops being accidentally destroyed in a battle. But evil still exists, and a new prophecy threatens the balance – a girl has been born who will absorb all magical energies expended from the Wizard Wars to change Midgard for good. As dark forces march to prevent the prophecy, Vlad – who is absolutely not a vampire – returns seeking one to four surviving wizards who can protect her until the time is right.
As far as stories go, Magicka 2 is a good one, although it’s not breaking the mold when it comes to generic fantasy tropes. Outside of a solid mid-point twist it’s fairly comparable to Magicka 1, following a quest through human settlements, forests, snow-covered landscapes, underground caverns, and other typical fantasy locales. Thankfully Magicka‘s parody status rears up to change the tune – such as when Vlad’s important quest narration is also overheard by enemies, or how NPCs always interpret your protagonist’s silence as implicit agreement for insane tasks. Some of the humor is a little too referential to be lasting – like Jon Frost who knows nothing outside of the three-foot Wall of ice blocks he defends – but it makes for a unique world all the same.
As always, Magicka‘s real strength lies in its spell combat system. From the first level, players are given complete control of eight elements: Fire, Earth, Water, Lightning, Ice, Shield, Life, and Death. At any point, players can summon elements, combine them, and cast them into their surroundings, onto themselves, or even onto weapons. Cast Shield in front of you, and it creates a simple energy wall. Cast Shield on yourself, and you’re resistant to damage. Cast Shield and Rock as an area blast, and you’re surrounded by a rock wall. The possibilities are endless, to the point that some combinations might literally blow up in your face. Figuring them out is simply part of Magicka‘s appeal.
In combat, these elements are your tools against scenarios that only certain combinations can solve. Each enemy type, from lowly goblins to massive trolls, has various resistances and weaknesses that can be discovered through experimentation. Have you triggered a massive skeleton horde? No problem – use Life and Lightning to wipe them out at once. Facing enemies that deal fire damage? Just cast Fire and Shield on yourself to make yourself resistant.
Of course, there are two caveats – friendly fire is always on, and you’ll have to cast elements on the fly, usually while dozens of enemies rush your position. Killing other teammates is pretty much guaranteed, assuming you didn’t press the wrong element button and wipe yourself from the Earth. And that’s not even getting into “crossing the streams” of elements like Life/Death, generating explosions with devastating effects. Each unfolding disaster is like its own work of art, and usually leaves your fellow players in hysterics. It certainly helps that death has no consequence thanks to frequent checkpoints and easy-to-cast Revives.
As you progress, you’ll even discover magicks – special element combination effects like Haste, Summoning Dead Living armies, or the constantly-used Revive spell. There doesn’t seem to be quite as wide a selection as Magicka 1 – or at least not so many hilariously overpowered ones – but they still encourage you to watch the environment for unlockable objects. Unfortunately, the levels are linearly designed with limited opportunities to explore – you’ll usually just notice a small branching path, follow it for two seconds, find an item with little fanfare, and then return to the regular encounters. Not that Magicka 1 was a sandbox, but finding each magick and weapon felt like a unique event – not a checklist presentation at the end of each mission.
Where Magicka 2 surpasses the original is making complex magicks easier to cast. Along with the elements, Magicka 2 has four prepared magick slots that can be activated with a single button press. While the options aren’t fully customizable – each magick only fits in a specific slot – it means you never have to fuss over casting your favorite spells. What’s more, they aren’t affected by external effects, so if your magick requires lightning you won’t be harmed if you’re covered in water. But that doesn’t mean you should rely on them entirely – prepared magicks have a recharge time so you can’t cast them repeatedly. But you can still prepare them manually using the elements until then, which is a fantastic trade-off fans of the original will love.
Other than that, Magicka 2‘s major contribution is Artifacts, objects that alter gameplay in various ways. By default you start out with a Na’vi-style familiar who resurrects a player when all others are killed – a handy feature for solo games – which you can switch out for familiars with additional abilities. Other Artifacts are activated in harder difficulties, increasing Friendly Fire damage or decreasing the player’s health somewhat. But the best Artifacts can be found in-game and equipped in custom slots for future playthroughs – included “Sitcom Mode” that adds a laugh track to gruesome deaths, a teleporter that redirects you to enemy kill sites, or “CGA” which downgrades the colors to look like the very first computer displays. There’s some enjoyment to be had from Artifacts, but for the most part it’s like playing “Big Head Mode” on Goldeneye – sure it’s fun, but you’re still playing the same game.
Unfortunately, several of Magicka‘s more frustrating gameplay quirks transitioned to the sequel as well. Encounters can get ridiculously cluttered very quickly, even compared to the action-packed original. It’s easy to lose track of where your wizard is on the screen, which matters when a single step sends you off a cliff or into a friend’s crosshairs, so Vlad help you if a teammate wears the same color robes as you. And since Magicka 2 has no split-screen option, one wizard walking away from the group drags the entire display with them, obscuring dialogue boxes and enemy positions. It’s funny to die because you pressed the wrong button, but it’s frustrating when you die and you’re not sure how or where it happened.
The UI has been redesigned to help with some of the confusion. Player name slots along the bottom of the screen prominently display your wizard’s status – dripping water when you’re damp, set ablaze when you’ve caught fire, or surrounded by skulls upon death. That means even when playing with strangers online, you can quickly see who needs assistance and lend a hand – assuming you don’t accidentally make it worse. And while the keyboard/mouse controls are still best for lightning-fast element element casting, the gamepad configuration is much easier to use – assuming you’re using the dual-analog standard of course. There’s still a learning curve when casting elements with a gamepad, but it’s not nearly as finicky or error-prone as before.
On top of that the online experience is vastly improved, prompting fewer dropouts or lag when enemy numbers increase. What’s more, if you’re logged in with a Paradox Interactive account, Magicka 2 will track your total kills, deaths, friendly fire moments, and self-immolations across your entire career – which is unnecessary but absolutely hilarious. And if you don’t care for online play, Magicka 2 fully supports four-player local co-op – and remains one of my favorite couch gaming experiences to date.
At the end of the day Magicka 2 is simply more Magicka, charming little warts and all. It fixes the biggest technical problems of the original, but refuses to change the out-of-control combat and giggle-worthy humor we loved last time. If the combat was just a little more refined and it had a tutorial that didn’t rely on text dumps, it would have surpassed the original for me. But as it stands, this is a worthy addition to the series and a welcome game in any wizard’s library.
Bottom Line: Magicka 2 is Magicka refined – the same wizard-killing simulator co-op fans love with the fixes and improvements players craved. While it doesn’t break new ground or surpass the original, it’s a blast to play with friends.
Recommendation: If you loved Magicka, you’ll have a deep appreciation for Magicka 2‘s various fixes. But otherwise, this is practically the same wizard-killing simulator that was released four years ago. Keep that Revive button close-by, and you’ll do fine.[rating=3.5]