So far, so good, right? Well, you’d think so, but in practice all this variation just makes the game overly complex. The eight elements are bound to eight different keys (Q to R and A to F), while movement, casting, melee, special weapon attacks and blocking are handled by a combination of the mouse and the Shift and Ctrl keys.
This makes controlling the action absurdly complex, and all thoughts of stringing complex spells together go out of the window almost immediately. It can often feel like you’re fighting the controls rather than the in-game baddies. A lot of the time we simply resorted to hammering the buttons, almost at random, and just hoping we’d string together something lethal before casting it. More often than not, though, we’d accidentally put a life element into our element stack, meaning that whatever we cast actually ended up healing rather than hurting the monsters who were busy caving in our head with big wooden clubs.
It’s this kind of manic, seat of the pants action that you’ll either love or hate. We found it frustrating at first; we thought we’d be elegantly crafting powerful multi-element spells on the fly, rather than running around like a headless chicken simply hoping for the best. Once we’d embraced the headless chicken approach, though, the game became much more fun.
Mixing any element with the arcane element turns it into a beam
If you’re really struggling with the controls, then you can plug in an Xbox 360 controller to calm the game down a little, as the control scheme is much more suited to a game pad. You’ll actually benefit from using a game pad too, as it makes scaling Magicka’s unforgiving difficulty curve just a little more bearable. We’ve lost count of the number of obscenities we’ve directed towards the game. The effect of this steep learning curve is compounded by the distance between savepoints too, which makes dying because of a silly mistake doubly frustrating. Stupid mistakes tend to happen a lot too, as there's only one button-press between casting a full flame stack on yourself or your enemy.
This frustration is nothing compared to that which comes from playing in co-op mode, however, although this is also probably the best way to play Magicka. Up to four players can take up the roles of wizard-in-training, and set out to save the king as a group with spells that can interact with each other as they're cast - so you can freeze an ally's water spell, for example. Friendly fire is most definitely on, all the time. Again: frustration, carnage.
Spells affect friends as well as foes too, meaning the button-mashing chaos can often become sadistically complex as your wizard is lost in a haze of brightly coloured spell effects, shield barriers and burning enemies. You can expect to die a lot in this mode, although friendly players can easily resurrect dead cohorts with a simple mix of life and lightning elements. Don’t expect to be revived immediately, though, especially if it was you that accidentally fumbled last time.
Magic reacts with the world too, so you can freeze rivers and put out fires
While you’ll spend the majority of your time in co-op mode in blissful disarray, there can be odd moments when it all comes together beautifully and it's these times that make Magicka worth playing. Crossing two beams of a similar magic, for example, will result in a bigger, angrier beam streaking towards the target. Just don’t accidentally mix an opposing element into the beam, as it will detonate and almost certainly kill everyone involved. Really organised teams can even coordinate spells, with one player calling down a huge rain of fireballs from the sky, while the others whip up earth and fire shields to protect the group.
There's no denying that Magicka can be an effort in frustration at times, but its charming satire and colourful art style make it easy to persevere with the game. You can’t help but develop a soft spot for a game that allows you to wield an M60 machine gun in a fantasy setting. It's just a shame that you need to be a 12-fingered ninja with a gamepad and lots of friends to get the most out it.