Platform: PC (reviewed)
Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
H.P. Lovecraft's grand works will stand the test of time as truly exceptional examples of effective horror writing... and geek culture has accepted him with open arms. Cthulhu is a household name as well a plushie. Shub-Niggurath, The Goat With A Thousand Young, appears as a boss in the original Quake. Games are permeated by his insidious, wonderful influence... and while we respect his stories, they're certainly ripe for parody.
Magicka, one of the rare parody games that actually provides an excellent gameplay experience as well as belly laughs, is definitely the game for the job.
I don't think that Magicka really has a 'canon' as such, but for what it's worth, The Stars Are Left takes place a few years after the original campaign. The four heroes are now enjoying their well-deserved retirement (sporting rather fetching detective trenchcoats and magnifying glass staffs, no less) and living the high life... and on cue, Vlad - who is not, I repeat not a vampire - reappears to task them with a new quest. A new evil is stirring in Outsmouth, and it's up to the magi to put down their cocktails and pick up their staffs for some more From there, The Stars Are Left propels players through a hilarious and meaty three-mission campaign complete with new environments, two massive new bosses and a sense of humour that riffs on everything from Lovecraft to Minecraft. Arrowhead know how to make a genuinely funny game - and the humour is derived from both silly jokes and surprisingly thoughtful use of the source material.
The raw gameplay is very much intact, so I'll skip over the intricacies seeing that this is a DLC review. In case you don't already know, Magicka is all about isometric magical combat against hordes of enemies, which encourages you to combine eight different elements into all manner of outrageous spells. Beams of fire and lightning, Earthy shields or even surprising springboards can be summoned into life with terrifying results, though the sheer numbers of enemies mean that you'll want a few friends watching your back.
During the build-up to release, we wondered whether The Stars Are Left would be less challenging than the original game. The new fairy companion acts as a one-shot revive who can turn the tide of losing battles, and both the new Cultist Robe and Spawn Staff are exceptionally powerful new items. Spamming burning evil trees (dark young, maybe?) is definitely one way of evening the odds. You've certainly got some ace new toys, but as far as the difficulty level is concerned, it turns out that we were dead wrong.
What you need to know is this: The Stars Are Left is hard. Very, very hard. Solo runs can become vicious, hellish, nightmarish gauntlets (especially the endgame that throws two simultaneous bosses at you), and many of the traditional go-to magicks (such as minion summoning) have been removed. New spells need to be experimented with on the fly, and you'll likely have to butt your head against several checkpoints in order to work out the best ways of taking down enormous groups of varied enemies. Coopererating with three other players will make your job easier and leads to satisfying close shaves, but be aware that there's still an exceptionally difficult challenge ahead. The Stars Are Left is clearly designed for advanced players who know how to work together, so if you don't fit the description, be sure to learn fast.
The difficulty disguises the fact that the new campaign is rather short. Its three levels, though fairly meaty in their own right, don't provide an enormous amount of raw value - instead, you'll spend a lot of your time dying and restarting rather than plowing through the story. Luckily Arrowhead's wicked sense of humour provides the perfect enticement to keep on castin', and the plethora of magical abilities mean that you'll probably want to complete it multiple times to experiment with new strategies and spells. For only £3.99, it's hard to complain.
The two challenge maps are both hectic and imaginative, with the highlight being the Outsmouth level that forces players to start with only the Life element. Working out how to kill your enemies with the standard gust of wind is a fun metagame in and of itself, which requires players to team up and push foes into the deep water or campfire while healing each other like crazy. It's brilliant fun, and will likely provide serious longevity once the campaign's finally succumbed to your burning, freezing, shocking awesomeness.
Magicka's recent tech update removed most of the horrendous bugs and performance issues that plagued the original release, and I'm delighted to report that The Stars Are Left is solid from a technical standpoint. However, I've received word of a few potential animation glitches relating to the bosses, and more to the point, Magicka is really starting to look graphically crude and underpowered. We're hoping for a full sequel that can bring the series up to current standards.
Finally, as a DLC pack, the decision about whether or not to buy The Stars Are Left boils down to value. £3.99 will net you hours of eminently replayable action and multiplayer shenanigans, making this a no-brainer purchase for Magicka fans. Before you download it, though, be aware that you can join a friend's multiplayer gaming without having to buy it yourself - so I can see a few veteran co-op partners sharing the wealth.
- Enjoyable and effective campaign, fun challenge maps
- Hilarious, especially for Lovecraft fans
- Great value at £3.99
- Incredibly tough (or maybe I just suck?)
- Looks dated
- Note: you may not actually have to buy it if you play with friends
The Short Version: Magicka: The Stars Are Left is as hilarious and irreverent as you'd expect from the Magicka franchise... but its stern difficulty level will replace smirks with intense furrowed grimaces. Tight tactics and cooperation will ultimately prevail, and for £3.99, it's hard not to recommend this meaty expansion to fans of the original.