I love surprises. Especially when they’re as pleasant as Magicians & Looters (80 MSP). This is also why I love XBLIG; the chance that someone, somewhere, is crafting a masterpiece right under your nose. Three days ago, I knew absolutely nothing of the game or its existence. Now, I consider it one of the best XBLIGs available, a ‘swords and sorcery Metroidvania’ packed with enough playtime (6+ hours already), variety, loot, and humor to satisfy literally anyone.
The game concerns three apprentices at a school for magicians. When the school is attacked, the head teacher imprisoned and the council commandeered by the requisite evil sorcerer, the trio embarks on a roundabout journey to retrieve their master and rescue the day. The story is solid but knowingly only semi-serious, with some easy laughs and bizarre moments, like a Fruit Magician and a talking cat (which I’m convinced is essential to any good game) that bestows new character powers upon you at key moments.
You get to play as all three students, first in sequence as the story begins, then able to be swapped at every save room. You can (mostly) outfit them as you’d like, buying weapons and accessories from shops, or whatever you unearth in one the world’s many secret rooms or hard-to-reach alcoves (a la contemporary Castlevania). The agile Vienna fights with her bare hands, while her brother Brent relies on a trusty sword / shield combo. Warrior-type Nyn brandishes dual-blades. Each character has their own moveset and upgrades that apply to them. Likewise, you will find that certain areas can only be accessed by specific characters.
Regardless of the situation, they’re all a joy to use, and their individual personalities fit nicely within the game’s story. The dialogue is well-written and well-paced, and it’s genuinely fun just to watch them interact with each other during cutscenes, or upon entering save rooms. Given the adventure theme and pedigree, exploration is of course required. And it’s a breeze, thanks to thoughtful layouts and a handy Metroid-esque map that fills in as you go, and can be observed in-game. The compass and treasure indicators ensure you never get lost or lose track of spaces to return to once you’ve acquired new items or moves.
It helps that those different hubs feature some incredibly crisp and gorgeous visuals, from a foggy mountain climb to dimly-lit caverns, down to the aesthetics and minutiae (insects and animals, or how the sound is muffled while you’re underwater). Varying enemy types and boss battles populate each area, and they too, much like the music, the animation, controls, the bonus obstacle courses, so on and so on, are handled brilliantly by the game.
In fact, so much is done right here that it’s odd to find a rather serious complaint. The only knock against the game I can find is its sometimes ridiculously-hard boss fights, ones that require a perfect loadout / character choice (when allowed), the utmost concentration and precision, and more than a little luck. Though you’ll assuredly stumble a half-dozen times or better against one or two of them (the Red Wizard in particular can go right to Hell, to put it nicely), I urge you to keep at it. I am. The rewards outweigh the potential frustration.
Magicians and Looters represents an indie developer at the top of their game. From top to bottom it impresses, at once both fresh and fun, and suffers very few missteps along the way. Almost no other game on the service can match its quality. As such, it joins the expanding Leaderboard pantheon here, a near-flawless adventure you won’t find at retail, an experience that simply shouldn’t be missed.