Magus is a conundrum. I’ve personally never been more conflicted about reviewing a game. While it’s unquestionably bad (mechanically, aesthetically, Magus is one of the worst games I’ve ever played)…I sure as hell had a great time playing it. Co-developed by Black Tower Studios and Aksys Games (and published by the latter), Magus is ostensibly a third-person action-RPG. Really, it plays more like a third-person shooter, complete with a reticle, but that’s beside the point. I’m still trying to work out what, exactly, Magus is, and whether or not the developers are in on the joke.
Available for download on PS3 for the bargain-bin price of $24.99, Magus is the video game equivalent of direct-to-VHS. It’s aptly been compared to a low-budget B movie, to “so bad they’re good” cult classics like Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Room, and Troll 2.
Magus, as a videogame, fails in every way possible. It’s a comedy of errors, and I was laughing the whole time. Allow me to set the stage.
The game begins with a looping pre-rendered cinematic that looks shoddy even by PS2 standards. We are whisked across a moonlit landscape to a looming tower. Once inside, we focus on a pair of those weird toe shoes and their owner, a lumbering bald man who apparently has back fat. Wait, no, that’s just his ugly belt, nevermind. He lurches to the back of what appears to be a torch-lit cathedral (I thought we were in a tower?), and upon reaching the back wall places his hand next to a carved rune. It begins to glow the color “antifreeze blue“. But, wait, look out toe shoe man! The baddies are coming!
An arrow whizzes by his head, which he deftly evades all Matrix-like (I should tell you now: there’s no dodging in the game, absolutely none). He then proceeds to kill his off-screen enemies with blue magic (fire? electricity? who cares!). The faces he makes during this sequence…oh god, they’re the stuff of nightmares. It’s as though he’s having a seizure and an orgasm, simultaneously. While spewing his blue magic, it almost looks like he’s firing a submachine gun with unlimited (glowing) ammo. Which is actually a pretty accurate description of how the gameplay feels, but more on that later. The opening cinematic ends with a crotch-shot (I’m not joking) as the man clenches his fist, signifying (I think) that he’s more determined to kill things now.
You play as the titular Magus (pronounced May-juss), Latin for mage, a man who’s been imprisoned in the King’s dungeon his whole life. A mysterious woman in “sexy” mid-drift revealing armor shows up, and Magus immediately has the option of calling her a “tavern wench.”
As it turns out, her name’s Kinna, and you learn through conversation (read: tedious exposition) that Magus is in fact a god. A god who, for some reason, forgot he was a god and lost all of his powers. No worries, though: Kinna has you recite a phrase, because evidently that’s all apotheosis requires. What’s Magus the god of, exactly? Colors. I’m not kidding. The game’s website says Magus has “the Power of Chromatic Arcana,” which translates to, “He’s able to shoot colors out of his hands.”
Before long, you’re killing bad guys with your magic pew-pew attacks. The “magic” Magus wields is more like a plasma gun that comes in three different colors: green, blue, and red. Each has a unique “basic” and “heavy” attack that are functionally identical in that they’re all ranged. That’s right, an RPG with zero melee combat. For the basic attacks, you can choose between a machine gun that fires green orbs, three-round bursts of larger blue orbs, or a shotgun blast of flaming red skulls. The heavy attacks are a green sniper shot, a big blue orb that explodes like a grenade, and even more flaming red skulls.
In the late-game you can chain heavy and basic attacks to create ridiculous combos. These include a green tornado and a cloud of red miasma that gives enemies the plague. But my personal favorite, blue, lets you create a fucking black hole that basically kills anything nearby. Each color has its own mana bar, but the basic and heavy attacks don’t deplete mana. You can spray your magic bullets as much as your little heart desires, you’re never gonna run out of ammo. This is true of the combos, too.
I bet you’re wondering, “Well, then, what does use mana?” Skills, which you unlock as you level up by spending skill points, use mana. But never fear, you can always replenish your mana by sucking it out of glowing rocks scattered around the map (again, not kidding).
Each color has its own skill tree, vaguely related (maybe) to the “theme” of the color. Red is all about sickness and death, so by specializing in these skills Magus can spread the plague, steal an enemy’s life-force to heal himself, perform necromancy, that sorta shit. Green is, I believe, elemental magic, as well as combat buffs: he can create a wall of fire, cause an earthquake, or turn to stone. For some reason there’s also a green skill that lets Magus shrink himself, and watching tiny, sped-up Magus run around is quite possibly the silliest thing I’ve seen in a videogame to date.
My favorite was blue, which is based in manipulating metaphysics and space-time I guess? Aside from creating fucking black holes, it had the most useful skill in the game: increased movement speed. Not only were my attacks faster, I could get through the painfully boring levels more quickly. Blue also lets you levitate (the first game since Morrowind!), teleport, and cause flaming blue stars to rain down from the heavens (which comically works indoors, too).
As you can see, you have a plethora of fun options when it comes to killing your enemies. The only problem is, your enemies aren’t nearly as fun to kill. You’ve got your skeletons, your giants, your weird lizard creatures, your unicorns (I wish I was making this up). The unicorns, who evidently work as gem miners, are bipedal and either whinny or whisper “Killlll” as they attack.
However, the enemies are all the same in terms of AI. There is no strategy to defeating them, other than perhaps circle strafing constantly. While Kinna, your busty and loyal companion, tanks all the damage, you can circle and fire ranged attacks at your leisure. Each type of enemy also looks the same. For example, the boss skeleton might appear slightly different, but the 50+ regular skeletons you face in the level beforehand are carbon copies of each other. Or, rather, carbon copies of the same shitty character model. Still, it’s a blast killing them all with a fucking black hole.
The level design in Magus, if you can call it that, is just putting different skins on the same level. There are a whopping 5 areas to explore: Mines, Desert, Beach, Arctic, and Volcano. Each has its own type of enemies but, since those all suck too, that hardly improves things. It’s funny: I didn’t mind combat that much, but holy shit was it terrible traversing those ugly, poorly designed levels.
With regard to the game’s RPG elements, you definitely do level up. I can say that much. You’ve also got stats; 6 of them in fact! There’s Vitality (health), Strength (damage), and Dexterity (damage resistance), as well as Red, Blue, and Green (how much mana each color has and their relative strength).
As for equipment, you’ve got 8 slots: armor, helmet, belt, gauntlets, earring, necklace, tattoo, and rune. Loot is found in chests or dropped randomly (and often) by your enemies. There’s plenty of gear to choose from, and looking back that’s one of the game’s strong points. Also they all have cheesy RPG names like “Helm of Pain” and “Ring of Understanding,” which I love. Ironically, despite the staggering variety of gear, you always look pretty much the same. For instance, near the end of the game, I’d equipped a set of rainbow gauntlets and a matching rainbow belt (don’t ask), but you wouldn’t know by looking. Only the helmet and armor alter Magus’ appearance, and even those are usually just different colors (my end-game “set” was just a white version of the one you start with).
But what do you do with all the excess loot?! This actually turned out to be an amusing (albeit flawed) mechanic. With the help of the friendly unicorn Elder, you can convert extraneous items into scrolls that permanently increase your stats. For example, say you have a helmet that increases your Strength +5, but it’s not as good as the one you’re wearing. Salvage it, and you’ll get a permanent Strength increase. I’m serious, it’s hilarious.
Obviously, this makes becoming overpowered absurdly easy. Which, I guess being OP makes sense since you’re a god and all, but your enemies (who admittedly do scale with your level) never had a chance. I could literally farm loot to increase my stats, which was far more efficient than just leveling up and distributing points. Not that, ya know, leveling up is important to an RPG or anything.
The real problem was this made the game even easier. Of all of Magus’ flaws, this is probably the biggest: I was playing on the hardest difficulty setting, and it was still stupidly easy. The only time I died in my 8ish hour playthrough was when I jumped into a pit of spikes just to see what would happen. Not only is the game itself easy, it also holds your hand in the most annoying ways possible. Before the first boss battle, a notification popped up saying I should use heavy attacks instead of basic ones, and that I should kill the other enemies before attacking the boss himself. No shit, really?
Magus is buggy, but in an adorable, non-game-breaking way. During the aforementioned boss fight, about halfway through the boss just stood still and let me shoot at him until he was dead. And Kinna likes to get into all sorts of mischief: you’ll often find her trying to fight enemies while stuck on top of something, like a torch.
Speaking of Kinna, the poor girl. She frees you from prison, awakens the power inside of you, and acts as the tank in all of your battles. She amounts to little more than an indentured servant who (of course) ends up falling in love with you. There’s a pretty disturbing master/slave subtext going on, and they couldn’t make it more sexist if they tried. And Magus himself, god, what a piece of shit. He takes pleasure in taunting his enemies, even the ones who are begging for their lives, before brutally slaughtering them. And in his quest for what’s basically world domination, he either kills or conquers/enslaves everyone he encounters. Magus is a beefcake who’s character arc can be summed up as, “conquer people, become more douchey.”
I often got a kick out of the dialogue, however, mostly because it’s so poorly written. Magus spews incoherent Latin whenever you use a skill, such as “Res singularis!” Um…single thing? Okay, Magus, sure. And at one point you’re about to face the boss of the unicorn level, a rather fat “shepherd,” to whom Magus says (I shit you not): “Damn son, looks like you’ve eaten a lot of unicorns.”
With gems like that, you’d think Magus has to be somewhat self-aware. It’s hard to believe that someone could’ve written that without laughing, or that others could’ve read it and thought, “Hmm, yes, riveting dialogue, gritty and not at all funny.” But, then, who knows, maybe that’s exactly what happened.
Honestly, I’d prefer it that way. The best B movies are the ones that have absolutely no idea just how bad they truly are. Their naiveté is endearing, and they’re funnier for it. In good conscience, I can’t give Magus any more than 3 stars. While it’s “so bad it’s good,” I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. It’s rollicking diversion, nothing more. But if you’re in the mood for a relatively inexpensive joke of a game, I heartily recommend it.
Like bad movies, Magus is best experienced with friends who can laugh alongside you. And might I suggest a drinking game.
[+Unintentionally hilarious] [+Making black holes is fun] [+Tons of assorted loot] [+Dialogue is very silly] [-Way too easy] [-Enemies are all the same] [-Ugly graphics] [-Boring level design] [-Protagonist is a sexist douche]