The Magic Circle, for you laymen out there who haven’t spent the ten minutes on Wikipedia that I have, is a gaming concept that refers to the psychological membrane we wrap around a fictional or virtual world in order to isolate it from reality. It is also the means by which the game I’m talking about today telegraphs its intention to be just so gosh darn meta right from the title screen.
Question Games’ The Magic Circle is the brainchild of Jordan Thomas who previously worked as a designer on all three Bioshock games and Thief: Deadly Shadows. He throws us into the world of the eponymous Magic Circle, the sequel to a cult classic text adventure game, which has been in development for twenty years only to find that it is almost entirely composed of placeholders and developer workarounds to the extent that even the game’s Steam logo is a square.
We are immediately greeted by the banter of auteur Ishmael Gish (an amalgamation of perfectionist game designers more or less successful, such as Molyneux or Levine and I would bet money that Thomas has thrown some of himself into the pot as well) and pro gamer turned game designer Maze Evelyn (who may or may not be a parody of John Romero’s ex girlfriend Stevie Case) who has been trapped on the team by a brand deal for over ten years.
Their bickering accompanies the player through the vast majority of the game’s introduction, with Maze pushing for more focus on action, while Ishmael is obsessed with having the player railroaded through the untainted experience that he envisions. All this under the looming threat of an upcoming live demo. Several minutes into the game, after [SPOILER REDACTED], the player (who has the role of a playtester) is introduced to two more characters: Coda Soliz (Community Manager, Live Streamer and Rabid Magic Circle Fan) and The Pro, the latter of which being what I assume is an accidental AI trapped within an older, scrapped build of the game with a retro Sci Fi theme.
The Pro introduces the player to the actual gameplay mechanics: using memory (your health) to trap, modify, heal and un-erase various creatures and objects in the game world in order to progress. Here, the game starts to resemble Double Fine’s Hack ‘n’ Slash a tiny bit, as you can strip abilities such as movement and attack from various creatures and then liberally slap them onto others and also control who they obey and who they attack.
As you can’t do actual damage to any of the creatures, you have to rely on your merry band of misfits to do your fighting for you. It was not long before I rode into battle on a flying turtle creature that attacked enemies with a railgun, while accompanied by a legged, fanged mushroom, a sword-wielding animated corpse, a firebreathing cyber rat and a spellcasting mushroom wizard whom I named Fungalf. Because I could.
The game is highly generous with the power it gives you and few puzzles have but one solution, allowing and even requiring a bit of out of the box thinking, as you mix and match abilities with your creatures, taking advantage of the “ghosting” mechanic (which is to say interacting with dead objects while you yourself are dead) while the characters constantly speak of gods and godlike power all around you. Clever, mister Thomas. Clever indeed.
Going into The Magic Circle almost blindly at first, I was expecting what the gaming community has taken to derogatorily call “A Walking Simulator” (some of which I still enjoy) so I was pleasantly surprised by the mechanical depth that the game suddenly started to present to me. Furthermore, the third act of the game swaps gameplay styles without notice several times breaking walls fourth and higher in a way that I found to be very pleasant.
The aesthetic of the game is interesting and unique. While many placeholders exist in the environment, they are not overused and the first part of the game has a very stylized black and white look, while the middle mixes it with a colorful pixelated retro space FPS style. The result is something engaging and pleasant to look at for the majority of the experience.
The sound design is great on the music and voice acting fronts, with the music being atmospheric while conforming to either the fantasy or sci fi style, depending on the current environment. The voice acting cast includes veterans James Urbaniak and Ashly Burch (and a small cameo from Ken Levine) who do a tremendous job. The sound effects, however, particularly the creature noises I found, at times, annoying, but this was in no small part due to my decision to have a menagerie, nay, a cacophony of minions and I never felt especially bothered by them for extended periods of time.
The writing, while cheesy in small, isolated places, is largely solid and humorous while striving for some philosophic depth. It had me actively chasing secrets which consist of audio logs from the members of the staff, giving you more insight into their lives, personalities and motivations.
Where I found The Magic Circle lacking, however, was in length. Now, at about five hours and with a completionist play style (I wasn’t lying about those audio logs) this is definitely longer than some of the games I’ve played and enjoyed. However, during the mid-section of the game, just after you get a clear objective and it feels like the tutorial is finally over, there’s very little left to do within the main story before you are thrown past the point of no return and into the third act. It somehow feels like the game wants to offer more toys for you to play with but doesn’t have them and yes, I do realize the irony in making this criticism of what is thematically an unfinished game, but I would have loved more puzzles to solve with insanity and aberrant genetic horrors.
Nevertheless, The Magic Circle was definitely a quirky, lovingly made and interesting ride which I enjoyed immensely. The only thing I’m still unclear on is I’m still trying to decide whether the fact that it left me wanting more is a good or a bad thing.
Disclosure: game copy was provided by the developer/publisher for review
The Magic Circle
- Interesting and unique art style
- Sandbox mechanics and freeform play experience
- Good music and voice acting
- Varied gameplay, especially during the third act
- The sound effects can get annoying when having many minions following you
- The middle section could have used a bit more fleshing out