Witness the Birth of a Genre - Magic Survival Review

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Of the regular cycle of breakout Steam hits this past year, there’s one that’s really stood the test of time for me: Vampire Survivors. This old-school pixel graphics title came out in late 2021 to virtually no fanfare, but it has steadily picked up more and more interest to the point where it has now sold millions of copies and is being heralded as the first breakout star of a new genre, the “horde game.”
I’m one of those millions of copies sold, and I’ve been obsessing over Vampire Survivors for over a month now. But imagine my surprise when I discovered that while it may be the first mainstream hit of its type, Vampire Survivors actually very openly borrows from the gameplay of a mobile-first title. Magic Survival served as the inspiration for the developer behind Vampire Survivors; this is the real origin of the horde game, and it deserves just as much love as its little brother on Steam.
Released in 2019 by Korean-based developer Leme, Magic Survival may not look like much via these screenshots. You play as a tiny little wizard from a top-down view, gliding across a series of more or less nondescript levels and fighting waves of enemies that mostly look like little balls of fuzz. Looks can be deceiving, though. While Magic Survival’s core mechanics are easy to grasp, there’s an engaging and addictive level of depth just beneath the surface.
Each run at Magic Survival begins with choosing one of twenty-four different starting classes. While the classes have a lot of thematic variety—from the vanilla wizard to oddities like the arbiter and the kabbalist—they largely operate as mere starting points. Your class choice determines which spell you begin each run with and sometimes offers little boost to that starting spell, but beyond that you’re able to sheep each run however you want.
In order to build out your character, first you need to start killing enemies. Lots and lots enemies. The reason games of the same ilk as Magic Survival have been given the title “horde games” is because they throw massive amounts of enemies at the player. What starts as a slow trickle of opponents quickly turns into a flood, and within minutes of starting a run, you’ll regularly be facing down dozens of enemies at a time.
While the sheer number of baddies can feel overwhelming, Magic Survival isn’t a game that makes you feel weak. Quite the opposite, in fact! As you kill enemies and collect experience orbs and treasure chests that they drop, you’ll level up, and each time you level, you’re given a choice of three or four spells to choose from; you can either learn a new spell altogether or increase the power of a spell you already know, and making these choices is the real heart of this experience.
Let’s take one of the most basic spells as an example: fireball. If you’ve played a fantasy game with magic before, you know how the fireball spell works. Big ball of flame shooting from your hands. Basic stuff. But as you level it up, this classic offensive power gets even more devastating. One rank might simple increase the damage dealt by fireball, while the next actually increases the number of projectiles that are sent rocketing at enemies each time you cast the spell. Mastering fireball to its max level (usually around level 10 or 11) gives you the opportunity to choose a talent that gives it a major boost, such as each fireball ending in an explosion that damages all the enemies around whoever it hits.
The appeal of this system should be obvious. The more you play, the longer you survive, the further you get, the more you get to witness as your spells grow more and more absurd. And it’s not just one spell, of course. By the end of a successful run, it’s possible to be level 60 or 80 or even over 100, with a mishmash of a dozen different spells from different disciplines. You might be shooting detonating fireballs while also zapping enemies with lightning storms and regularly unleashing a burst of frost in an area-of-effect attack around you. Late-game runs of Magic Survival transform into a spectacle of incredible powers and exploding enemies that is as bewildering as it is empowering and exciting to behold.
Of course this overload of flashy effects and bombastic sounds would be impossible to navigate if not for the brutal simplicity of Magic Survival’s moment-to-moment gameplay. Though you have full control over how your powers evolve, you don’t actually control when those spells are cast. Instead, each spell has its own cooldown, and your character auto-casts each of them as those cooldowns come up. That means all you need to worry about is weaving in between those giant hordes of enemies, trying not to get surrounded or cornered and grabbing experience orbs. It’s very old-school, arcade-feeling game design, with the huge bonus that you don’t need to pop in a quarter every time you die.
In fact, you don’t really need to pay anything, though you may want to make a couple small purchases. Magic Survival is completely free-to-play, but you will have to watch ads after dying. Those ads can be removed with a one-time payment of $3.99, which is well worth it if you plan to play for long. Likewise, a one-time payment of $2.49 will double the post-game “cells” that you are rewarded, and I’d recommend that as well. Six-and-a-half bucks is a small price to ask for the dozens of hours of gameplay I’ve wrung out of this title so far—with dozens more likely to come.
Part of the reason to stick with it for so long is that Magic Survival features a roguelite-style progression system beyond leveling up on each run. While a single attempt at a level may only last twenty or thirty minutes, you’ll earn the aforementioned cells as currency. Those can be used to purchase skill points, which can in turn be exchanged for ranks of “research,” which are essentially permanent buffs to your character. These buffs range from the obvious—higher damage, more health, faster cooldowns—to surprisingly fun tweaks, like increasing the drop rate of treasure chests or making it so that every time you level up, your character explodes and damages all the enemies around them. As with the spell progression during matches, Magic Survival’s research options provide a lot of potential directions to experiment with, which makes it easy to fall into that “okay, just one more match with this new build” habit.
It’s hard to overstate just how impressed and obsessed I’ve been with Magic Survival. I’ve spent several weeks now playing for hours every day, and I don’t expect to stop any time soon. It’s no surprise that the creator of Vampire Survivors was so drawn into this game that he wanted to emulate it—and it’s no surprise that that emulation has become a massive hit. Magic Survival truly feels like the start of an addictive new genre of games, but it’s a beginning that doesn’t feel sloppy or underdeveloped. The horde games of the future are sure to find new and exciting ways to expand on the formula established here, but going back to where it all started is always going to be worthwhile.
SCORE: 5 STARS OUT OF 5
PLAY IF YOU LIKE:
Vampire Survivors and the many games like it. This may seem obvious from the text, but horde games are here to stay, and if you’re digging them, you owe it to yourself to check out the one that started it all. You can also take a look at my recent collection of mobile games inspired by Vampire Survivors to learn about five other great games in this style.
• Feeling overpowered. Yes, it’s technically a roguelite where your run is bound to end in death after thirty minutes or so, but I still can’t think of a game that has made me feel quite as much like a walking death machine as Magic Survival.
💬 Have you played Magic Survival, Vampire Survivors, or any other horde games? What do you think the future is for this genre? Share your thoughts in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond!
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Griddy Right foot creep
Griddy Right foot creep
actually vampire survivors made the genre
09/27/2022
Kef
Kef
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Kef
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Technically not true!
09/27/2022
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John Pagano
John Pagano
Battle 2 baseball
09/27/2022
John Pagano
John Pagano
Battle 2 baseball
09/27/2022
Ivan Papazov
Ivan Papazov
play the video
09/27/2022
tz14zzor
tz14zzor
follow me
09/26/2022
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