Developed by: Question Studios
Published by: Question Studio
Release Date: May 10th 2016
Available on: PS4 (Reviewed), PC
The first few hours of The Magic Circle are an interesting and broad take on the development of games, or lack thereof. Mostly a first-person puzzle game, TMC can be completed in a matter of 30 minutes, or it could take you all week. It all depends on your problem-solving ability. Given no real guidelines or rules but a varying array of abilities, you’re expected to figure it out and explore on your own. Thankfully the map is full of voice recordings and secrets to paint a picture of what is exactly going on in this world.
You’re a play tester, playing the latest game from a world-renowned game developer who just can’t seem to get his newest would-be release right. It goes through change after change, and he still can’t decide how he wants his masterpiece to reflect upon the world. And after so long in development hell, the game has finally had enough of this. It just wants to be released. It’s your job to make sure that happens. Sabotaging development, turning people against one another, and ruining a press conference are all elements throughout the story that eventually builds to a significant change in game play. But more on that later. The game is filled with broken or unfinished art and characters. It’s a clever look that other games don’t have. It is a bit of a crutch, but that doesn’t take away from the core of the game.
Gameplay is unlike many other puzzle games where you steal the power of a game god–trap their creations, swap behaviors, and body parts, and make whatever kind of creature you’d like at that moment. Maybe there is a large gap between you and a key that you need. Well, you give turtles the power to float and jump on them. And since you have no weapons you need other creatures to do the fighting for you, like having a fireproof flying robot kill everything in your path. Obstacles are built around a general idea but solved in your own way, kind of like a coloring book. It all gets colored; you just choose the colors. The game never actually tells you how to play but instead gives you the tools and asks you to figure it out. Sure there are objectives, but they’re optional.
There are reasons Ish, the game designer, has taken so long to perfect his game. Hidden voice recordings can be found throughout the map to fill in gaps and answer questions. The plucky fan intern wants The Magic Circle to be high so she can brag about it on her streaming channel, and the former pro gamer turned game designer just wants out of this job. The Magic Circle isn’t just a puzzle game, it’s also a commentary on games media in general. Things like fan entitlement, Kickstarter, press conferences, and the overall thought put into video games are all represented in a not-so-flattering light.
But all this story would fall flat without performances. The voice cast included James Urbaniak, Ashly Burch, Karen Dyer, and Stephen Russell. Urbaniak and Burch steal the show. One is a self-obsessed tyrannical game designer who must have everything just so, and the other is the lore-obsessed intern who regards Ish as a god walking among men. The last thing I heard Ashly Burch on was Life is Strange playing Chloe Price, and this character is the exact opposite of that person: bubbly, ruthless, and a little bit crazy. James Urbaniak, Who I know from the Superego podcast, has the perfect cadence of someone who knows what they’re talking about but also thinks he’s above you.
The Magic Circle is a great purchase if you’re a fan of puzzle games. It’s not as crazy as The Witness, but it’s smart enough to keep you thinking about what comes next while poking fun at the gaming industry and all of its tropes. Its satire is well worth your time. The art style is beautiful and meant to look like an unfinished game, but it’s major downfall can be its frame-rate and technical hitches that sometimes pop up. And commanding your hoard of redesign friends doesn’t always work the way you’d like. It can get messy at times. The game crescendos into a final act that surprised me. After a mind-numbingly tough final trek to the “Boss,” a heartfelt speech, and a failed game, it’s your job to put the pieces together and finally release The Magic Circle. I won’t spoil it, but as a fan of game design, it was a cool way to finish.