Magicians & Looters Review
Hardly a magical experience, but they have the 'loot' part down
Can you believe something? There are people out there who somehow find the time to complain about the word 'Metroidvania'. Castlevania games were not, for a long period of the series' lifespan, what you would classify as Metroidvanias, and as such, there are those who argue that the genre should be called Metroid-likes, or 'Troid-likes, or Metroid-rules-Castlevania-drools. Frankly, if we're going to judge whether the two franchises are worthy of contributing to a name, I'm not sure either of them really deserve to be figureheads any more. Last time I'd heard, Castlevania had started dressing up like God of War and Metroid had been placed in the hands of the Dead or Alive developers, a move as ominous as giving a toddler a can of spray-paint with considerably more disastrous results. But really, what other option do we have? 'Non-linear-exploration-based-action-adventure-usually-2D-but-not-necessarily' is far too wordy, and it's not like we have that many other options for successors to the name lying around. Shadowcomplexsouls? Striderstory? Alright, those portmanteaus were awful. What about you, Magicians & Looters? I'm not certain which half of your name we'd amputate for our purposes, but I'm sure you can part with one measly word. First, though, we need to know if you're worthy of the title.
Wow, that was a lot of effort for “Magicians & Looters is a Metroidvania”. Did that come across? Magicians & Looters is a Metroidvania. It is as Metroidvania as Metroidvanias get: you freely explore a non-linear world, unlock new abilities, backtrack to find places where they're still useful, and – in deference to the likes of Symphony of the Night – get to play around with looted weapons and light RPG elements. For some people that's probably enough all on its own, but Magicians & Looters is also a few other things. Or at least, it tries to be.
So here's how things go. High above the universal unnamed pseudo-medieval land where every low-grade fantasy novel takes place is a big tower full of wizards. Actually just one wizard, I think, since only one actually ever appears on-screen. Anyway, he gets kidnapped by the bad guys, who are bad because they kidnapped him and kidnapping is a bad thing to do. Luckily he has three apprentices, namely Nyn, Brent and Vienna, who set off to go and save him because there's no way they're going to let something so inconsequential get in the way of their semester mark if they can help it. This is where we discover the first thing Magicians & Looters is trying to be: a comedy. A silly, silly comedy. And this might seem unreasonably vitriolic – not to mention even more subjective than usual – but I hate it. I hate the way it tries to pass off its main characters as 'sociopathic' when they're really just teenagers who hate one another for no better reason than having a token character conflict. I hate its penchant for playing loud annoying noises and silly voice-overs, the entertainment equivalent of being slapped in the face with a damp sponge for sustenance. You can almost hear the canned laughter accompanying the dialogue, surging forth every time somebody makes heavy-handed mockery of video game tropes. Oh, NPCs always get to the objective before the player, my poor sides. You know what else is funny? Inventory systems. How do these kids carry an armoury's worth of swords around, eh? It's almost as if video games defy reality or something.
Fortunately – that is, fortunately for the potential player, for me, and for this game's eventual appraisal – the writing is as rare as it is pain-inducing, perhaps even more so if you put it into 'abridged' mode, and in any case wasn't really what we were here for in the first place. We're here to get our Metroidvania on, and that means exploration. Brace yourself for the earth-shaking impossibility of a positive opinion, too, because the exploration is actually really good. Oh, sure, it takes a while for the world to open up, but once it does there's no shortage of tangent areas, puzzle rooms and secret crannies to dig up and pick clean. The level design makes a pastime out of cheekily teasing you, putting chests in seemingly sealed vaults, behind impassable doors or on top of unreachable ledges, burning the knowledge of those unopened chests into your brain so efficiently that you're almost guaranteed to come back later, armed with a portable construction auger and mountaineering equipment. It's a fine example of everything I love about Metroidvanias: the slow, branching exploration of an unfamiliar world that gradually unlocks as you gain new abilities, your progress gently sculpted – but never forcibly directed – by your next destination.
Unfortunately, not only is Magicians & Looters also a fine example of the one thing I dislike about Metroidvanias – namely, ceaseless backtracking – but it actually goes out of its way to ensure that the backtracking is as achingly drawn-out as possible. Of the three apprentices in the story, you only ever control one at a time, while the other two laze around the last visited checkpoint arguing about whose turn it is to stoke the bonfire. Each one starts off with a fundamental fighting style – Nyn uses two swords, and is therefore the coolest of the bunch; Brent uses a sword and shield, and can therefore block both projectiles and attacks; Vienna fights bare-handed – so you could initially be fooled into thinking it was just a system for letting you use whatever combat method you felt most comfortable with. However, as the game goes on, the abilities you unlock are not simply gifted universally, but instead are distributed among the group. So if you're adventuring out there and you find a loot chest or objective that's just out of reach – say, because you brought the apprentice who can only high-jump when accessing your target requires a wall-jump – too bad, time to backtrack! Time to go all the way back to a bonfire and switch characters, you hopelessly ill-prepared dungeon-goer. That'll teach you for not possessing the necessary psychic precognition to know that you would be passing through here and would need this particular set of skills at this exact time. Let's hope you learn your lesson for the next six- or seven-hundred times this happens.
If I'm honest, I'm really struggling to see why there needed to be three apprentices at all. I know I said in the previous paragraph that they all have different fighting styles, but they all learn the same handful of spells and they all boil down to the ancient martial art of mash-mash-mash-dodge in the end anyway. Volgarr the Viking this ain't. Maybe the story demands that there be three of them so that it has plenty of chances to unload its witty dialogue on the player, but why should the gameplay kowtow to it like this? Story and gameplay are supposed to co-pilot the game, not exist in some twisted master-slave relationship where one is submitted to heavy disfigurement just so that it can bend to the other's will. I one-hundred percent believe that this game would be improved if two of the apprentices were crushed to death by a falling 'APPLAUSE' sign halfway through the opening sequence and the third one was left to act alone. No backtracking to switch out characters every time you encounter a ledge that's too high or a gap that's too low, a drastic reduction in the amount of sarcastic teenage banter, and let's not forget: schadenfreude.
Well, at least the game provides enough motivation to actually get on with the backtracking. Loot comes in three forms: weapons, passive items, and orbs (and money, but doesn't that go without saying?) The former two are the more alluring stuff, since each character can equip a given combination of them, and while the total list of items is fairly modest, they're all varied enough to warrant experimentation. I liked to get into the fray and chop things up, so I just equipped health-related items and the biggest, nastiest swords I could find, but there's no reason why you couldn't equip yourself for magical warfare, or counter-magical warfare, or something a bit gimmicky. It's not a particularly mind-blowing feature, either in terms of equipment effects or in terms of the amount of available choices, but I appreciate the gesture, Magicians & Looters. I really do.
Orbs, on the other hand, are the game's approach to... well, I want to call them RPG elements, but that hardly seems appropriate. Alright, so if you collect enough of them then a big flashy 'level up' logo flashes on-screen, which would normally be a safe enough tell, but they really stretch the definition of 'RPG elements' here. I could just about forgive this sort of thing when games were lugging around half-baked character sheets and levelling trees everywhere – although I had started mentally assigning them the term 'arbitrary upgrade system' instead, because that's all they were – but this goes one step further and just has a linear succession of rewards. Collect two orbs? You run faster. Collect seven orbs? Extra item slot. Sure, it's another incentive to go scout out more hidden areas, but it's a startlingly bare-bones system that just seems to have been thrown in because they ran out of ideas for new character abilities after about thirty minutes of unproductive brainstorming.
Wait, no, it must have been at least thirty-five minutes: there's something called a 'blitz' meter. Chances are that you already know how this works – thanks to that kind of engraved instinct that forms out of years of encountering generic game mechanics over and over again – but just to be sure: it's a red bar. Fill up the red bar by fighting monsters, and then you get to go batty-nuggets for the next ten seconds with a bunch of increased stats. Believe it or not, though, there really is innovation at work here; it's just not moving in the right direction. You know how normally when you want to enter the local equivalent of berserk mode you press a nice convenient button, or at the very least have some measure of control over when it happens? Magicians & Looters looked at that and thought “goodness gracious, that's a little bit too complicated for me”, so your blitz is instead handled automatically. Sadly, like sliding doors and cross-walk signals, this is one automated system that never seems to work properly around me. The game is supposed to save up your blitz and only activate it at an 'opportune time', but exactly what constitutes an opportune time and how the game measures this is left as an exercise to the player, though I have a sneaking suspicion that it just involves counting the number of enemies alive in the current room. Multiple times I'd consume my blitz on a completely inconsequential melee only to find a legion of extremely ugly orcs sitting around in the very next room, sharpening their axes on their toenails and looking at me like the last lump of meat in the cooking pit. All you can be sure for certain is that it will trigger as long as you're in a big enough fight for more than a few seconds, but it still feels like a very sloppy method of doing things when I have all these wonderful keys here that aren't assigned to anything. Look, I can press 'A' right now and nothing happens. I mean, the letter appears in this document, but you get the idea.
Magicians & Looters gives the impression of a game that's been heavily polished, perhaps a somewhat low-budget sort of polish that would probably still leave marks if you used it on your car, but polished nevertheless. Animations are smooth, character sprites are detailed – though somewhat limited in their colour shading considering that they're too high-res to be really aping anything – and there are a lot of nice little effects, like decapitated heads bouncing around or particles spewing forth from spell impacts, which give the game just a little bit of shine. Bearing that in mind, how on earth can a game have so much effort put into it and still have a framerate that drops below sixty? This is a 2D side-scroller, for crying out loud, and not even the kind where a few hundred sprites might conceivably be bouncing around on-screen. What's going on in there, Magicians & Looters? Are you calculating realistic liquid physics on every drop of blood I spill? Or are you really just a horribly optimised Symphony of the Night rom-hack running on a fully-accurate emulator?
I'm not going to pretend Magicians & Looters doesn't do a lot of things wrong (because this review speaks for itself) and I'm not going to pretend that those things are somehow inconsequential either (because they aren't) but I think we can still let Magicians & Looters through with a pass. It's a Metroidvania with good exploration, and while that may only be one feature, the key here is that it's the most important feature. It's like a brawler with a good combo system, or a first-person shooter with good gunplay. Do all the other components matter? Absolutely. Will I use them as an excuse to whine and ditch glassware at the wall? As a matter of course. But I'll keep playing just for the sheer satisfaction of finding one more secret room, perfectly juggling a goon in the air, or splattering an alien's misshapen cranium across a bulkhead respectively. Is that enough? Maybe. Is it enough to justify renaming the genre? No.
Neither is Super Castlevania 4's linearity, though, so shut your mouths already.