The last time I had this much stupid fun blowing things up in a video game was years ago with Painkiller. My time with Magicka was cut short before I'd had my fill of its flexible combat system, though, and not because of any impending deadline. Single-player becomes unplayable due to horrid level design halfway through, and technical problems continue to mar online co-op. Still, the affair between Magicka and myself was hot enough despite its brevity. The fact that it costs less than a movie ticket and doesn't subject you to 90 minutes of Jennifer Aniston helps.
The plot doesn't do anything more than make a few Star Wars and 300 jokes along the way to setting up a few thousand enemies between you and some kind of existential threat to the world. There are almost no RPG elements. You can find replacements to your sword and staff that may have useful passive or active effects, but it's a lot more Final Fight than Diablo.
You have no mana bar, skill points, or potions to keep track of. All that exists are the eight elements and the four ways to unleash them. You can fire freezing lightning beams (cold + lightning + arcane + projectile) or refresh your water shield (water + shield + self-cast) as fast as your fingers can input the commands. Charge your sword for later elemental devastation – may I suggest [water + fire = steam] + lightning + arcane for maximum destruction? Create volatile lightning walls, raise volcanic geysers, drop healing boulders from the sky – Magicka's combat system puts explosive creativity at your fingertips and rewards your experiments with enthusiastic animations of their deadly effects.
Investigative players will find discrete magicks with unusual effects, from Haste to Time Warp and Rain to Blizzard. The best tactics tend to combine spells, magicks, and manual dodging. For example, a water shield prevents you from getting wet. Follow that up with water + [water + fire = steam] into the Rain magick to soak all the enemies on screen. Since you're still dry, channel lightning elements (which short out and damage wet wizards) with arcane for double-damage beams. Alternatively, add in cold elements to encase enemies in ice. This is just the tip of the iceberg – you can encase yourself in rock while Meteor Shower immolates everything on screen, conjure blocking boulders around you and call lightning from the sky, and more.
The spell system works best when you don't have time to think about what you're doing, which is most of the time. There are typically a half-dozen or so enemies shooting arrows at you, charging you with cleavers held high, firing mortars, or casting spells of their own. The overall effect is not unlike God of War, but with elemental magic replacing Kratos' weapon-based combos. For the first half of the adventure, Magicka throws a well-paced, pleasant variety of combat situations at the player that encourages exploration of the destructive potential of your wizard's staff.
The level design inexplicably abandons single-player balance halfway through the game, turning this easy-breezy enemy-exploding arcade game into a controller-smashing slog. Even in co-op – which is obviously where the design focus lies, and the best way to play the game – some sections of the back half of the adventure are frustrating despite ally revival requiring only a simple two-element combo. Explosive physics effects are great, until you're stuck on a tiny floating island with three enemy spellcasters who can instantly kill you by throwing you off the platform with uncounterable spell combinations of their own. Powering through the worst bits is punishing with a few friends to help you out; only the most masochistic gamers will make it through in single-player.
All of that level design stupidity can't stop Magicka's brilliant core gameplay from shining through, though. At its best, with a buddy flinging spells beside you as the two of you tear hordes of enemies limb from limb, it's Double Dragon on a flaming helicopter flying through a tornado with a pilot on his fiftieth cup of coffee. That doesn't excuse the bits that are best compared to Battletoads' legendarily frustrating hoverbike sequence, but I'm not going to pretend like I didn't get my $10 and more out of the game.