Review: The Magic Circle: Gold Edition

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Game development is never easy. Creating a whole world from just ones and zeroes, animating polygons, inserting voice work, and making a compelling, believable story is a daunting task. Some may even say that making games is an act of miracles. Dealing with the egos and different opinions of teammates working toward the creation of a game can almost be a war of attrition. Revealing the concept of a game too early may set expectations from fans to extreme levels. Year after year games get announced, go dark, and then hopefully some time later get released as a facsimile of what was originally announced. The Magic Circle is a representation of all things good and bad about game design and the pressures put upon developers from overly expectant fans.

Taking the journey of The Magic Circle sheds some light onto the pitfalls of what is likely the peril many game developers face. Delays, shift in focus, infighting, and even sabotage are all a taste of what troubles can come about during the development of a game. So what exactly is The Magic Circle? A first-person open sandbox game set in a monochromatic fantasy realm, players assume the role of a QA tester hired on to help get an almost twenty year delayed game ready for an E3-like public demonstration. The Magic Circle, the game within the real game, is the follow-up to a fictional text-based adventure whose fans have been eagerly awaiting a meaty, open-world sequel. In much the same way that fans of Duke Nukem Forever had been teased for years, the final result couldn’t live up to the ten years of hype.

So what can players do while moving around as a QA tester? Initially, players are given a simple task of filling in shimmering parts of the world with life. L2 will suck life from tears in the game world, and R2 will fill objects to bring them to life. Along the way, this mechanic will allow players to trap and edit creatures. Editing objects provides players with the ability to take attributes away from some creatures and then add them to others. Some creatures can walk, fly, or simply float, and stripping those abilities and applying them to others allows for creatures to perform tasks that the player cannot. Additionally, attacks can be edited away from creatures, and creatures can be tweaked to have specific enemies or friends.

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As gameplay progresses, floating eyes representing the project lead, Maze Evelyn, as well as the original game designer, Ishmael Gilder, appear to offer new tasks as well as randomly change the game world without any thought to impact of game balance. These floating eyes also provide insight into the bickering nature of the original game designer and the project lead. Ishmael (Ish for short) is voiced by veteran actor James Urbaniak, who lends such a wonderful take on the egotistical and maniacal characteristic of a game designer stuck in his ways to create a perfect game without being able to compromise on his vision while accepting that the game has been in production hell for 20 years.

At one point during QA playtesting tasks, players stumble into what the game originally looked like. While off-putting at first, it shows just how many iterations the game has gone through. The original game design looks and plays very much like a Build engine game (that was the engine used for Duke Nukem 3D, Blood, Shadow Warrior, and Redneck Rampage) but instead of being set in a medieval world, The Magic Circle is set in a space station, and gives off the vibe of being a System Shock knock off. The original portions of the game have the same mechanic of being able to trap and edit objects, which can then be reconfigured to allow items in the world to follow and defend the QA tester.

Eventually players must make their way to defeat the AI boss in the current world using all of the various attributes discovered while wandering the partially unfinished world. Once the Boss AI is defeated, the game shifts to preparing the demo of the game just prior to the E3-like presentation. Of course Maze has her own intentions of how to get The Magic Circle finally out the door, but those intentions mean making Ishmael look like a complete lunatic in front of a packed room of journalists while finally unveiling a game after two decades of rhetoric and promises. In order to make Ish go down in flames, players must sabotage the game demo live during the presentation.

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The events occurring during the demo show a different look and feel yet again, favoring a game reminiscent of Prince of Persia, and (at least in my playthrough) I was able to get Ish to frantically drone on about game design and the complexities of what fans demand versus the true expectations of game design and how much hard work goes into creating a game.

Because of the flameout during the demo, Ish releases the game code to the world, challenging all fans to make a better game. This presents the final section of the game where players get to place prefab rooms and corridors from all aspects of the history of The Magic Circle‘s development in order to make a better game than whatever Ish could have created. In addition to room and corridor placement, players can populate the world with enemies and loot. Once a meter has been filled up with all of the objects that the game will tolerate (and run acceptably), players get to run the game through a simulation for feedback on whether or not the game is fun and challenging. This simulation part has some fun digs at gamers at large, how someone is likely to always criticize whether or not the game is too linear, or too dull, or too challenging. Depending on how well the simulation rates the game, players may opt to go back and tweak their level design or start over from scratch before unleashing the game to the general public.

The Magic Circle presents a bitingly cynical and satirical look at game development while also maintaining a fun sandbox world to explore. A game that offers a critical look at both sides–development and fan expectations–is refreshing in this modern age of gaming hype and over promotion. Because the world is a sandbox, there is more than one way to solve puzzles, which allows for a lot of player experimentation. Additionally, there are a ton of collectibles to find throughout, providing a reason to revisit the world once the game has been designed and shipped.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Excellent voice performances
+ Biting satire in the overall narrative
+ Interesting open-world puzzles
+ Lots of collectibles to seek out

Cons:
– Controls can be a bit fiddly
– Collectibles provide a richer story experience but can be a challenge to find

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS4, also on PC and Xbox One
Publisher: Question
Developer: Question
Release Date: PS4 – 4/26/2016, Xbox One – 6/28/2016, PC – 7/9/2015
Genre: Action/Adventure, Puzzle, Simulation
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by publisher

Buy From: Steam, PlayStation Store, Xbox Games Store

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.