Magic in Hand:

Toying with wands in Noita

A spelunk into the caves of Noita is a deadly affair. The game is an action platformer with roguelike elements, inspired by Finnish mythology. Playing the titular noita (witch) we go downward to death or glory with high hopes and just a bit of magic in hand. The mood veers between tense exploration and the sudden chaos of blazing magic, fire and spilled blood. With luck we’ll arrive intact at a Holy Mountain crypt where we can restore our health, replenish our spells, purchase items and retool our magic wand for the next level.

A wand in Noita is a baroque thing that we brandish as we leap and levitate in the maw. We use it to kill foes and blast holes in the terrain. A wand has some inherent properties and a number of slots into which magic spells can be placed. Spells are categorised as active, passive, or modifiers. While this system lacks the exquisite polymorphism of the functions in Transistor (2014), the range of spells and properties is extensive enough to provide surprises, comedic deaths and ample regret. Wands and spells can be found in the underworld and purchased in the crypt-shops, but only in the crypts can we modify our wands.

Some quite extraordinary devices can be crafted if fortune favours us, and extraordinary deaths can be had as a consequence. We find a wand that shoots burning bolts, modified to leave a trail of fire in their wake. The wand has the property of adding a trail of oil to every projectile it shoots. In other words, this is a handheld napalm hurler. There is a pro and a con to this configuration: it sets everything on fire. We equip a wand with a triple spell modifier, three triplicate bolt spells, and another modifier that turns to sand an area around the impact site. This works a little too well: we collapse part of the crypt with our first test shot and the spectral crypt keeper, Stevari, emerges to punish our carelessness.

More often we must assemble an oddment of parts into a serviceable weapon. This is the unexpected joy of Noita, toying with wands in the calm of a crypt, purchasing the familiar and the foreign in an attempt to outwit the game. We are in truth an incompetent witch, certain to fail, but the inevitability of a calamitous mistake just around the corner makes the meticulous planning all the sweeter. We dream of a wand so potent that it can kill the toughest of foes, so adaptable that we never need look elsewhere, so dependable that we do not commit hara-kiri with it.

Roguelikes tend to have lasting appeal only for the most bloody-minded players, as the cruel randomisation and constant resetting of progress eventually repels the rest of us. Will the unidentified potion restore health or poison us? Such uninformed decisions are not intellectually satisfying. Noita’s wands and spells give authorship back to the player. We play and die, and come to realise that a death in Noita can be as good as a victory if it surpasses the previous heights of absurdity. We cannot help but laugh as our stoic little witch is done in by mages and monsters, floating eyeballs, burning whiskey lakes, and Jättimato the giant worm. How can we be angry with a game so committed to being so fully preposterous?