In this age of cheap-seat one-button brawlers, of grandma-can-play-too wand-wagglers, of full-body familyoriented frivolities, it's almost a relief to come across a game which favours an abrupt learning curve.
Though it looks and quacks like a comedy Diablo-clone, Magicka is underpinned by an intimidating set of key bindings. Here, the only class in town is wizard, and the letters resting beneath your left hand represent different magical elements which can be combined into spells, before being cast on yourself, allies, enemies or the environment with a press of the spacebar or a mouse button.
There are eight elements on the keyboard, but some form new elements when combined, such as steam or ice. I've yet to discover a spell which makes use of all eight keys, and such a thing may not be possible, given that some elements cancel each other out. One of the longer chains of letters I've typed (and you must dash them off between each and every cast) is something like the unforgettable qrdsr – which summons zombies. Then there's the old qfasa spell – which channels a bolt of foefrazzling lightning from the sky. I've forgotten what form of gibberish calls in the Phoenix kamikaze attack, or summons Death – and this is perhaps as it should be. Casting spells in Magicka actually feels like you're memorising and muttering arcane rituals, rather than choosing between a variety of manaflavoured attack animations – it's fitting that the more powerful ones should be tough to remember.
The elaborate spells mentioned above are activated with spacebar, but only if you've 'discovered' the formula in-game by collecting books – knowing in advance doesn't help. It feels a little pedantic, but you aren't really being short-changed: regardless of your book-learning, the same sequences of elements can always be put to use with the right mouse button, where they take on a more intuitive mixand- match form. Combine fire and shield, for example, and the right mouse button will summon a shield of fire. Throw in a bit of arcane magic on one of the other elements, and you get a prolonged beam blast, which can stretch across the screen to fry or freeze your enemies at a distance. When surrounded, frost and water produces a useful spray of ice shards. Meanwhile, a tap of the right mouse button when you have no elements loaded emits an enemy-repelling puff of air. It's also effective at blowing allies off cliffs – more of which later.
Back to that learning curve: sure, eight buttons is peanuts to most flight sim enthusiasts, but the speed with which you have to improvise combinations and rattle them off here proves quite a challenge. I've never been the best typist, and ever since a desk-destroying tea-mageddon episode, my horrible reserve keyboard has turned my normally fat fingers into useless hooves, which tend to pound multiple letters at a time. It's pretty tricky, in the throng of particle effects and flying limbs, to see which elements you have equipped – and it's important, too, because trying to heal yourself by ramming clods of earth into your eyes doesn't work. I've frequently killed myself when, in a panic, I cast arcane magic on myself instead of an enemy, or simply cut a healing spell with a lethal dose of lightning. I am an awful wizard.
It seems that slapstick death is part and parcel of Magicka, however. It's a game designed to be played in co-op, where up to three fellow spell-slingers are at the ready to heal you when you accidentally set yourself on fire. It works the other way too: as the screen fizzes with deadly sorcery, tagging your allies with the occasional meteorite shower is an inevitability. The beta netcode proved too unstable to support the four-player maximum (many hours were spent looking at inexplicably empty server browsers, crashing to desktop, or watching play stutter to a PC-killing stasis), but even with two players, the action was lethally chaotic. A sequence in which we defended the tiny deck of an airship from goblin pirates repeatedly ended with one of our number skydiving.
I can imagine that an extremely disciplined group of players might be able to approach the battlefield with tactical rigour, dividing the team into long-range and short-range, attack and defence – but for most, Magicka will have a cruising altitude of extremely, extremely silly.
Fittingly enough, the world of Magicka is just as gleefully daft as its combat: a pastiche of fantasy cliche, with hat-tips to Lord of the Rings, Monty Python and more. It's not exactly uproarious, razorsharp stuff, but its insistent stupidity is delivered with affection. This all amounts to an enticing multiplayer prospect: chaotic and silly, but with an undercurrent of skill in its spell-mastery. Let's just hope the devs work their sorcery on the netcode in time for release.