It is fairly safe to say I am a pessimist, just ask anyone who knows me. This does mean of course that I am never disappointed but I am still rarely surprised. A game that has surprised me though was Magicka, published by Arrowhead Game Studios, possibly the best thing to come from Norway since Rudolf.
Magicka is an isometric 3D adventure game in which you play a young wizard travelling in a world that vaguely resembles that of the Norse myths. The graphics are vaguely reminiscent of Diablo-esque games like Fate and Torchlight though generally lower in quality. This does seem to be a design decision and one that works quite well, especially in multiplayer mode. In it you play a mage freshly graduated from the mage academy and distinguishable only by the colour of your robe from those around you. Guided by Vlad, your teacher, who is most definitely NOT a vampire - you know this because he has told you - you are tasked with a mission to go visit the king and aid him in any way.
Fairly stock fantasy so far and I would be yawning if not for the differences. Magic (Magick?) is performed by mixing one or more of six elements (water, life, shield, cold, lightning, arcane and earth and fire as well as water+fire to create steam and water+cold to create ice) into spells and firing them at your opponents, of which you will encounter very, very many! Different elements create different effects. For example, using arcane in your spell mix will create a spell that creates a beam while using earth will create a missile. Using lightning on its own creates a spell somewhat like the traditional chain-lightning spell that jumps from opponent to opponents not doing very much damage but being ideal for cutting down groups of small monsters, something of which you will encounter a large amount of. On top of that there are different ways of casting the spell allowing the player to cast a beam or projectile depending on the element chosen, cast in an area around the caster (ideal for shields or when being overwhelmed) or cast directly on the caster themselves, allowing you to cast fire to remove water which makes you susceptible to lightning or water to put out any fires on yourself, healing (life) and shield (shield :) ) are obvious, but shield+(earth, air, fire or water) gives you protection from that element. Elements are added to a spell by using the q, w, e, r, a, s, d and f keys respectively and dispatched by right-clicking on a target. Some spell combinations, particularly those involving earth, require a power-up time to achieve full power and some element combinations just will not work as each element has an element that cancels it out (arcane and earth, for example).
Complicated enough? Well there is more! On top of all that there are set spells that are found in spellbooks. Once you have found a spell you can access it via the mouse wheel and greyed out versions of the elements needed appear in your spell area. You need to then enter in the elements needed and press space to launch the spell. I found this all rather overcomplicated and messy but I must admit the choice of spells were interesting. For example, early in the game you will find a spell that causes it to rain. Quite soon afterwards you will be attacked by a large group of small monsters. As rain makes lightning more powerful casting this spell then spamming lightning makes this fight very short.
Another departure from traditional fantasy is there is no mana or spell points in the game. You can cast as fast as you can key in which leads to some pretty impressive spellcasting. You also have the option of melee attacks and you start armed with a staff, though you quickly switch that out for other weapons, and it is possible to enchant your weapon using the spell interface for even more mayhem!
For such a simple game it really does have a very complex and fiddly interface and this is the main point I found against it. I get the impression that the casting method was designed to slow players actions down and stop them from spamming out a spell every half second but there are a number of methods that could have been used that would have been much better - spellcasting animation, for example - and I often found myself in fights hammering the keyboard like a deranged monkey and often casting things that were not quite what I wanted. This was a huge detraction from what is otherwise the most enjoyable new game I have played this year!
Now, that to one side, lets get to the bits that were really enjoyable: with one exception everything else in the game. The graphics are almost perfect; nicely detailed but of a low enough quality to work on many computers. In fact it played reasonably well on the ancient single-core machine that I only use for backing up data. The characters are fleshed out just enough (i.e., they are obvious stereotypes, but that works in this game) and the story is compelling and amusing. But what kept me going through the game as far as I did was the sheer weight of punnage! From star wars references (This sort of accuracy only comes from goblin archers) to the fact you pick up the warhammer from Grom's Workshop the puns never cease. There are, in this game, nods to almost all major fantasy and science fiction tropes and the dialogue has been expertly written laying down sometimes hilarious lines in completely deadpan voices - all voiced in Norwegian with English subtitles! Don't ask my how or why, but it works. I can only assume that, somewhere in Norway, there is a lab that is devoted to producing Leslie Nielson clones.
Each level (of which there are thirteen) is divided up into a number of smaller areas. Most of which have fights that need to be fought to move on and a number of which have semi-hidden items like spellbooks to pick up. Almost all of the fights are fairly easy once you work out what combination of spells work in that particular instance. Of course sometimes that is not completely obvious and I once had to suffer the same cutscene a dozen times due to bad luck and not working out quite what to do fast enough. The first time the cutscene was funny but by the time I actually defeated the level I was almost ready to pack the game in! Game designers, please allow players to skip cutscenes! There are two types of saving within the game as well: If you complete a level the game records that permanently and even if you quit at that point you will come back to the next level. There are also save points within many levels but these only apply if you die within that level and are forgotten if you quit and come back. Most of the levels are fairly small but one or two require a fair amount of effort so it is worth making sure you have an hour to spend before firing up this game. There is also the inevitable multiplayer mode without which it seems no game is complete these days. I enjoyed it, 'nuff said. Seriously, the mechanics are little different though it is worth making sure your character's robe is different from everyone else's.
Finally, this is one of the few games I have enjoyed the achievements from. Many of them were funny and a lot of them required different styles of gameplay. Then there was the achievement you could only get by dying in a yellow robe. This is also the easiest game in the world for getting the achievement for doing all the side quests!
If you have a few quid burning a hole in your pocket and a steam account you can do much worse than getting this game, provided you are the type that can cope with the interface. If you can (and it is not that bad, really) then this is a fun, lightweight without being casual, game that will make you spend your time looking for the hidden extras and hunting for the puns. Enjoy!