Magicka 2 is at its best in cooperative play. It plays better with two than with one, it plays better with three than with two, and it plays better with four than with three. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really shine with any number. It never becomes that game that I want it to be. All through the campaign, my prevailing thought was “I hope that the next enemies are more fun to fight,” and the only difference was that when I had friends in the room or over PSN, those thoughts were said out loud instead of internalized.
I haven’t played the original Magicka, but I get that wacky hijinks are supposed to be the main draw here. I get that. I appreciate that. I laugh long and hard each time I’m crushed by an incoming Stomper mech in Helldivers. I soak up the battle quips about managed democracy, and I love the absurdity of calling a planet Super Earth. But those moments never come in Magicka 2. When I kill my friend, it isn’t funny. It’s annoying, because my quick-select revive is on cooldown and the manual input refused to work.
With teammates perpetually down, I died a lot. Thankfully, there’s a small blue pixie following the primary player to revive when you’ve fallen and nobody else is alive to help. Unfortunately, this pixie is either dumb, malicious or both. When I’m surrounded by angry crabs or orcs and they kill me, it isn’t especially useful to be brought back to life still surrounded with all of my skills on cooldown. All that means is that I have to die again before the whole group can attempt the section one more time. It’s not fun, it’s not useful and it doesn’t add anything to the experience.
Most of my experience with Magicka 2 is in local cooperative play. Everything runs fine there, until it doesn’t. It’s possible to get teammates stuck off-screen where they are frustratingly killed. There is no good way to prevent lightning-based spells from ricocheting into your teammates, and it is extremely easy to lose your wizard in the fray and get him killed. All of these things are true of online co-op as well, but poor net code causes regular drops, leaving you all alone against enemies balanced for four players. Solo play, on the other hand, is little more than an exercise in repetition. One particular encounter requires one character to turn a wheel with the power of magic while the others fend off an unending force of both normal-sized and giant enemy crabs. First, there is no indication that the enemy waves are never-ending. Second, “giant enemy crabs” wasn’t funny 10 years ago; it is even less funny now. If Family Guy should have taught us anything, it’s that referencing a joke is not a joke unto itself. Pieces Interactive did not seem to get that particular memo.
I favor beam attacks. I like the precision, I like lasers in general, and the recipe is fairly simple to remember. My friend likes throwing rocks at people: fire rocks, ice rocks, accidental rocks on the head, the rock armor he really meant to cast. You think of a spell with rocks, and he wants to cast it. You’d think that with a quick-select spell book available, I’d be able to trade out haste for my favorite beam while my friend uses that slot for stone armor. You’d be wrong, though. Down is for revive and revive only. Now, revive is useful, but if I mistakenly start playing by myself, that’s a wasted quick-select. Even mapping a basic shield to it would be better.
Why the basic shield? Because I don’t remember the recipe for the cool shield that was taught in the tutorial. It was red, and it kept the spikes from killing me. Then I didn’t need it for a little while. By the time I wanted it again, I couldn’t remember how to cast it. And then I fished around in the menu for a bit to discover that, despite offering thousands of spell combinations, I can’t look at a list of things I’ve successfully casted before. Now when my group meets up once a week (because we’re all adults with jobs and kids) for some local co-op, we either fumble and never manage to cast that cool shield again or we take time to study before playing. Both of those things are the opposite of fun, but the enemies are resilient enough that we can’t regularly make it through by simply blasting single elements.
There are good ideas at the base of Magicka 2, but the wrapping just isn’t any fun. All of my laughter came from sitting in an enemy-free area and trying to intuit new spells, aiming whatever I’d found at my friend and laughing as he blew up. As soon as the enemies come, it’s run away and revive all day. Why? Setting guys on fire isn’t super-effective, adding lightning to it kills my friends, putting on armor makes me even slower than default and I have to stop moving to cast haste which means I’m surely getting caught and killed. Even if I don’t, there’s barely enough time to heal before somebody else needs a revive. This is not the good kind of hectic. Helldivers is the good kind of hectic. Diablo III is the good kind of hectic. Magicka 2 is poorly balanced. Every time I failed, I felt like the game had screwed me instead of like I needed to figure out the trick.
Even if there was a trick to figure out, the finger gymnastics necessary to cast Magicka 2’s spells make it impossible to reliably queue up a spell on the move, especially if you’re experimenting. Yes, life and death are opposites on triangle while fire and ice and opposites on cross. Shield and stone don’t really make sense as opposites. I’d have thought stone’s opposite should be lightning, but lightning is paired with water. I still don’t know the real recipe for haste. After looking it up, I never would have thought to combine lightning, death and fire and then cast it on myself. Why? Because the game has taught me that doing that would shock me, set me on fire and then deal some damage for good measure. An in-game spellbook would solve that problem, and frankly it is embarrassing that there isn’t one. These are wizards. Wizards are all about wearing long robes, carrying cool staves and referencing their oversized books to look up spells.
There are pieces present in Magicka 2 that should add up to fun. I can kill townspeople in myriad ways. I can kill my friends (sometimes accidentally) and then bring them back without penalty. I can combine lighting and death to shock my foes and feel like Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars. And yet every time my party falls, all I do is sigh and wish we were playing something else, something fair, something fun.
Pros: Loads of spells to discover and cast, local co-op improves everything, I can cast force lightning
Cons: No in-game spellbook, manual revival doesn’t always work, enemies have way too much health