There’s a wonderful, chaotic fun to Magicka 2 that carries you through the first few story levels, but begins to fizzle and die shortly thereafter. The creative freedom that made the craziness of the original title so great feels like it has been reigned in some, much to the sequel’s detriment.
The first Magicka was a great twist on the twin-stick shooter concept. Rather that just maneuvering your avatar around screen firing off beams or bullets based on whatever power pick-up you come across, you had mastery over the elements; wind, fire, and all that kind of thing! What’s more, you could combine these elements to create new types of attacks. For instance, mixing the “death” element with “fire” and “water” created a beam of steam. Mixing “earth” with “ice” created a boulder that released an icy explosion when it landed.
This mixing and matching allowed players to find the particular type of attack they liked and go with it. Some enemies were weaker or stronger against certain elements, so some variation was necessary, but you were pretty free to just go nuts. Added to all that are the specific “Magicks” - set combinations of elements learned along the way - that further contribute to the insanity. You can use them on foe, or to grief your friends as friendly fire is always on.
All of this is back in Magicka 2 and has gone under some welcomed tweaking. For those who prefer a controller to the mouse/keyboard, four (of the possible eight) elements are mapped to the face buttons and holding down the left bumper switches to the remaining four elements. Thus, much like the Strategems in Helldivers, cranking out your spells becomes far more like a set routine of button presses.
Setting up a fire beam is “Y A A A A”; ice pellets are “(hold) LB X X A A A”; and rock armor, which protects against physical attacks, is “(hold) LB B (release LB) B B B B”. These become second nature and while one’s fingers may occasionally mess up it feels like a better way of executing all of this. The specific “Magicks” that you learn along the way can still be executed via a set combination of elements and button presses, but they can also now be slotted into one of four hot spots on the controller d-pad allowing for quicker access. The one catch is that using these spells from the hotkey puts it on a cooldown while executing by manually inputting it allows for quicker casting and re-casting. All of these changes are good.
The story of Magicka 2 is, for the most part, entertaining. Acknowledging all of the craziness that ended up getting created via the numerous DLC expansions to the first (as well as the PvP free-to-play Wizard Wars), the realm of Midgard is now in a period of relative peace as all of the wizards are gone. People rejoice as they are no longer stuck down by random bolts of lightning; fields flourish without the some robed figure burning them down with fire. However, all the “rogue magicks” unleashed during the time of wizards are gathering into a prophesied child that may be either savior or destroyer. Thus, Vlad (the manpire) returns to guide four new wizards on a quest to save the world.
Along the way, you’ll encounter a bevy of nerd/pop culture references, like “John Frost” who warns of impending coldness and knows nothing. Tracking down these easter eggs can be good for a chuckle, but they are also tied to unlockable artifacts and some new staves/weapons. The staves and weapons grant bonuses, such as having a sword that does melee and death damage, or a wizard staff that boosts your shield spells, and can be set as your wizard’s default equipment from the main menu. The artifacts can be used in any of the game modes to modify and alter the gameplay. Maybe you want to put the video into CGA mode or give enemies a health boost. These allow you to make the game as challenging or easy as you like, which helps with replayability.
In addition to the “Adventure” (i.e., story) mode, there is a “Trial” mode (i.e., time trial) that can be accessed (oddly) under the “Adventure” menu, and a “Challenge” (i.e., horde) mode. All of these can be played cooperatively with friends and grant rewards, either more artifacts or different robe colors. Whatever is earned in the “Trial” and “Challenge” modes are shared across all players but those earned in the main campaign are not, unless you're at the same point in the story as the host. In other words, if you join a friend’s game who is farther along than you, you won’t get to keep those lovely new wizard robes, magicks, and staves you unlock at the end of the stage. I can only figure that this was done as some of the robes you earn provides bonuses (such as resistance to fire or immunity to “wet” status) that would negate the challenge of that stage.
This brings me to the biggest problem with Magicka 2. Each level feels like it’s own little puzzle box. For example, one stage frequently has you going through rivers and puddles of water, thereby applying the “wet” status to your wizard and making it impossible to cast lightning spells. Unless, that is, you apply a water shield to yourself. As you can only have one shield active at a time this then limits what you can respond to from the enemies themselves, i.e., you cannot put up a flame shield to protect yourself from a flamethrowing goblin. This approach to the stages isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it does make them feel like you have to go about them a certain way in order to avoid a lot of frustrating deaths. Granted this particular problem largely applies to when you play the game solo, but having friends doesn’t exactly alleviate the problem. Sure, they can revive you when you die but with the friendly fire mechanic, everyone still kind of needs to be on the same page with what to do in order to avoid a lot of deaths by friend.
All of that being said, the “Challenge” mode feels like the best mode for cooperative play. A few of the stages do have some environmental hazards of which to be wary but for the most part it’s all about clearing out the waves of foes as quickly as possible. This behavior is reinforced by the “Challenge” mode scoring/spell unlock system. Killing foes quickly awards more points and allows your team access to the “Magicks”, which are vital to the team’s survival in later wave. This reward system encourages players to come up with strategies for how best to combine their spells for greater destruction.
One player, for instance, can use the water spell to apply the “wet” status to all enemies while another can use lightning to deal more damage to them. Or perhaps he/she will use the ice spell to temporarily freeze them and take them out of the fight so efforts can be focused elsewhere. One of the more effective strategies that we found was to have one player shoot a death beam and another player fire a life beam into it. This creates a little explosion (as life and death are opposites) that deals a large amount of damage to anyone caught inside. There is the potential to kill a teammate, but more often than not you’ll take out the opposition.
Magicka 2 is a great update to the original game. The systems that made the original interesting and unique have been better refined, and the overall gameplay is still fun. While the level designs and enemy grouping may stymie the creative/chaotic approach you’d like to take when playing a particular story level, the additional game modes allow for a little more of the good ole freewheeling spell-slinging. As with the original, your time in Midgard will best be spent in small doses with a group of good friends.