UPDATE: Magicians & Looters received a Second Chance with the Chick. To say it improved the game is an understatement. I now consider this to be the best Xbox Live Indie Game ever made. Click here for my updated thoughts.
Welcome to the wonderful world of Xbox Live Indie Games, where expectations are so low that there’s not sufficient clearance for microbes to hang themselves from it. Because of this, sometimes games that are just not that good end up getting elevated beyond their actual value. Take Magicians & Looters. Here’s a really ambitious first effort by a group of developers with not a whole lot of experience, and it’s not terrible. It also has, for my money, the best comedic writing ever seen on an XBLIG.
M&L is a Metroidvania. I fucking love those, but XBLIG hasn’t been the best source for them. LaserCat is my favorite. It was the original #1 game on the old, ten-games-only Leaderboard. But it’s a different breed of Metroidvania. There’s no combat in it, only avoidance. It’s also easier than boxing a newborn paraplegic orangutang . But that was pretty much the cream of the crop. Other attempts were nowhere near as successful. There was Astroman, a Metroid-inspired adventure that came very close to hitting the mark, but wasn’t quite there. Still, this is probably the genre that, if done right, I like the most.
I try not to get hyped for games, and I certainly try to avoid hearing what my fellow XBLIG critics think of a game that I intend to play. Unfortunately, becoming good friends with them means sometimes you hear things. Like, say, Tim Hurley putting Magicians & Looters at #5 on his Leaderboard. Or Jed Presscott calling this game “better than Symphony of the Night.”
To get the good out of the way first: Magicians & Looters isn’t broken or glitchy or likely to physically materialize like that spooky chick from The Ring and murder you after seven days. In fact, all the ingredients seem to be here, fully functional, and primed to present one of the best values a game could have. But, for me at least, it just never came together. By far the best aspect of Magicians & Looters is the writing. The story is a sort of spoof of Harry Potter. You play as three teenagers enrolled in a wizard’s school. It gets overrun by evildoers and you must band together and save the day. They’re also all, to put it politely, type-A personalities. They spew out non-stop sarcasm, have endless disdain for one-another, and almost seem to speak in the language of a sitcom. I always hate games like that. It’s one of the things that turned me off of musical RPG Sequence. Here? It works. Even better, the jokes don’t rely on referential humor. No callbacks to bad game dialog. No “remember that movie you’ve seen? We’ve seen it too, and we’ll demonstrate that by quoting it verbatim, but you should laugh because we’re going to do it in an unexpected way” type of stuff. Hell, they don’t even directly reference Harry Potter, and the game is a send-up of it. I mean, damn. Standing ovation right here.
The sharp writing is the ONLY thing that kept me playing, though. Mechanically speaking, I just found Magicians & Looters to be boring. Mostly because of the combat. I give them props for wanting to do something different. Here, touching enemies doesn’t inflict damage on you. Everything is handled by actual hand-to-hand fighting. You attack a few times, then hold block, wait for them to miss, and then continue on. That sounds great, but there’s a reason why 2D games typically don’t do that: because it’s slow and it makes combat a plodding chore. Of course, there’s no real reason to fight enemies. The leveling-up system is handled entirely by finding hidden trinkets, which was another dumb idea. For almost any game, combat will stagnate after X amount of hours. The grind of leveling up could very well be the only thing that keeps your average player from just running past enemies. In M&L, they do drop money that you can use to buy better weapons, but progress on that is too slow as well.
The main hook is switching between three characters, each with their own unique abilities. Unfortunately, this also is bungled, because two of the characters (the guy and one of the girls) are too slow. For a game that already has severe pacing issues, this one really got to me. Most of the time, I wanted to be playing as the near-naked chick, who was faster in movement and could jump significantly higher than the other two. But she was especially crappy at combat. So, you have to switch between the three to open up the map, but playing as the other chick, who was so slow that I was wondering if she had Lou Gehrig’s disease, was torturous. Also, in order to switch characters, you need to go back to a save-station. They’re liberally scattered throughout the world, but the needless backtracking when a Castlevania III like on-the-fly switcheroo would have been so much more preferable and obvious just adds to the dullness factor.
Again, the game has all the right parts of a good Metroidvania, such as a very well done map. Unfortunately, being fun just didn’t make the cut. I think this is mostly on the dull combat. For everything it borrowed from Symphony of the Night, the thing it needed the most was pushed aside in favor of something slower and blander. If it had been remotely close to Symphony of the Night’s combat? Probably a top-5 XBLIG game.
My dislike for M&L has nothing to do with the hype I got from my buddies. If anything, I spent more time with it than I would done with any other game because I was trying to find the game they both loved so much. If you hear something unequivocally called better than one of the best games ever made, it catches your attention. I also wasn’t looking for reasons why it’s not. That’s what lifeless fanboys do. No, I wanted to see what they saw. I looked hard for it. Instead, I found dull combat, bland level layouts, and just an overall slowness that I couldn’t get into. I tip my hat to the guys at Morgopolis Studios. I typically discourage first efforts from being this ambitious. Ambition wasn’t what went wrong with Magicians & Looters. Truth be told, it’s a well designed game. Results will not be typical, I guess, considering that my colleagues are shaking their fist in anger that it’s a digital-download game and not on disc, meaning there is no hole for (remaining review censored by Brian for the sake of Cathy’s parents. I don’t want them to know I taught her what THAT is)
Magicians & Looters was developed by Morgopolis Studios
$1 (still censored. Sorry folks. Her filth bled into the money joke) in the making of this review.