Sometimes a game can get extra mileage out of its concept even if it doesn’t quite go as far as it should in execution of that concept.
The Magic Circle is one such game. A meta commentary on the creation of video games and the relationship games have with their players, The Magic Circle introduces some really smart ideas that offer a fair amount variety in puzzle solutions for any one problem, but is unfortunately too brief to warrant the hefty price tag. It does offer a lot to think about and admire though.
The Magic Circle’s premise is deceptively simple; you are a play tester for a long in development game (20 years) named “The Magic Circle” whose creator, Ishmael “Ish” Gilder, is at odds with his lead designer, Maze Evelyn. As a result of this conflict, the game is no closer to being finished 20 years later as it was a few years into development. What you are tasked with is to play test the demo for the upcoming E4 expo to help them complete it. Along the way, you encounter a rogue AI, The Pro, who has been stuck in the game since an early version and wants out. To do this, The Pro teaches the player how to manipulate the creatures in the game in order to complete the game or escape.
Throughout the game the player will eavesdrop on several disagreements and conversations between Ish and Maze as they contend over what the player should or shouldn’t be allowed to do and why. Depending on how much you are into the concept and meta commentary, you’ll either get a kick out of this stuff, or not, but I will say right off the bat, if you’re not into this kind of thing, this game isn’t for you. Personally, I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s smart, witty, and incisive, if sometimes on the nose. For example, early in the game the player is given a sword and it’s immediately taken way and Ish complains about how players are given a weapon and they want to kill everything that developers create. From then on you never pick up another weapon. Even better, unlike a lot of games that attempt satire through being critical of the thing it’s satirising while still using the tropes it’s criticising, The Magic Circle sticks to its guns and makes the player figure out a way to get out of dangerous situations.
I may not have had a weapon in the traditional sense, but I was able to use other enemies to my advantage. The first thing you learn to use is a trap which ensnares an enemy in a sort of stasis field. From there you can approach the enemy and edit their behaviors to make them either an ally that will attack other enemies, take any abilities they may have, or change their abilities to solve puzzles. For example, I needed a key for a cage that had one of the few friendly NPCs in the game. The problem was I didn’t know how to access it because it was across a small section of lava. When I realized I could switch the abilities of a fire-based enemy to a turtle like creature I could step on, I set out to do that. Before I could, another ability I hadn’t even thought of was used by the AI and without spoiling what happened, the game came to life as an ally. I used the ability to warp all of my allies to my location, picked up the key and used it to free the NPC.
The presentation of The Magic Circle is simple but striking. Hand drawn in appearance at the start, the visuals soon mix with the crude sprites of original version of the game from 20 years prior. As you progress through the relatively small demo map you can see the two versions melding together and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t one of the cleverest uses of a retro aesthetic I’ve ever seen. The voice acting is great across the board with each of the three characters truly coming across with little visual representation as you mostly hear it through either “developer commentary”, or as the characters interact while you’re playing the game and are represented as floating eyeballs. They all have different motivations and are thankfully well-written and acted which serve to bring you further into the narrative.
I really enjoyed my time with The Magic Circle right up until the coda of sorts. Taken out of the existing gameworld, you are given a very rudimentary set of creation tools that allow you to make a brief representation of a game and have it reviewed by The Pro – then the game kind of just ends. It was then that I realised that there wasn’t much to the game beyond the small map, interesting but very brief puzzles, and the story. At under two hours, I can’t say there is a lot of value here for your dollar. I would love to see a more fleshed-out experience with the ideas and sharp writing on display here but as is, I can’t recommend paying full price. On sale? Absolutely, give The Magic Circle a shot.