Review: The Magic Circle (Gold Edition)

Development Is Hell

Most people know that it takes a lot of time, effort, talent, and funding to develop a video game. It’s an entirely different thing when a developer finds themselves at odds with each other. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to be trying to develop a game wrought in the pits of development hell, The Magic Circle has you covered. Not only is it a biting satire of the pitfalls of game development, it relishes in highlighting the not-so-nice aspects of fandom and how creators regard their own work.

While this title is currently available on all computer platforms that Steam supports (PC, OS X, Linux), developer Question recently brought the title to current-gen consoles. The title is currently available on PS4 (Released on April 26, 2016 at $19.99), but a release date for the Xbox One version has not been announced yet.

You’re initially thrust into a playtest of the fantasy setting, but the incomplete nature of the game is made manifest once that is complete. It was supposed to be a re-imagining of a sci-fi text adventure that was spearheaded by Ishmael Glider (voiced by the very capable James Urbaniak), which gained a very dedicated cult following.  It naturally escalated into pressure to follow it up with something that would do the original title justice. What eventually transpires is a change of vision from sci-fi adventure with environments reminiscent of ’90s FPS titles to an artsy RPG setting mixed in with it.

It really lends itself to not only a conflict of interest but a slow descent into madness as Ish’s personal struggles end up mucking things up in an already troubled development cycle that spiraled out of control for 20 years. Not only that, but he brings in a couple of dedicated fans (Played by Ashly Burch and Karen Dyer) to help him bring the title to release. The character of Maze Evelyn is one such lead that is clearly sick of his indecision, and the intern Coda Soliz represents the plucky enthusiasm Maze once had for the project.

Caught in the Crossfire

Placed in the shoes of “The Hero,” you will be exposed more to the fantasy setting of the game. Devoid of color, you find yourself walking through what would seem to be one of some epic action. This is not the case, of course. You’ll eventually find yourself in “Pro Mode,” where the bulk of the game’s mechanics are brought to the forefront. The Hero will encounter a long-forgotten entity in the game called “The Old Pro,” voiced by Stephen Russell. Stuck within the world with limited ways to change it, he guides you through the schizophrenic world and tasks you with manipulating it to bring something playable to the fans as an act of retribution. He views the developers as gods that are extremely inept. He might be using you for his own selfish reasons, but at least it’s a very productive one.

This is where the bulk of the gameplay comes from. Not only does The Old Pro guide you into restoring previously deleted game elements, but you also have the ability to “hack” into other characters in the environment. Enemies that were previously hostile can be converts into allies, and their abilities can be removed and spliced into other creatures. By mixing around newly found abilities with other creatures in the game world, it springs forth a way to solve puzzles within the environment. It’s very limited at first, but it will expand more as you play.

Developers in Conflict

Being as quirky as it is, it also makes sense that the fourth wall is given little consideration. This is chiefly because of the constant interaction the player has with the developers themselves. While you may have the ability to manipulate the world around you, it’s still something that is under the control and direction of the dev team. Both Ishmael and Maze intend on using The Hero as pawns for their own goals. Ishmael is more concerned about his own vision and using the game as an outlet for his own personal struggles while Maze is more concerned with making sure that the game is playable in some form or fashion. While The Old Pro has his own goals to fulfill, he has an unlikely parallel with Maze who just wants to see the light of day.

A major strength in this game is the meta-commentary it presents to you. You are subject to all the difficulties and arguments any game developer might have during what is a very difficult process. The “incomplete” nature of the game is proof enough of that. While the sci-fi environment may have been scrapped at some point, it highlights Ishmael’s desire to move away from what made his prior title popular in the first place. His own selfishness is brought to the forefront, and Maze and The Old Pro constantly buck against it. While The Hero might be an active participant in this, the human conflict at hand shares a significant part of the stage.

Life is Drama

This game is a projection of the trials and tribulations that all game developers encounter at some point. Because of this, it won’t appeal to everyone. That shouldn’t detract you from giving it a shot, though. While there have been plenty of other mediums that shine a light on the behind-the-scenes aspects, The Magic Circle proves that this can be done successfully in the gaming space as well. It almost seems like a way for the developers to blow off some steam in an expectedly exaggerated way, almost as a source of catharsis. That emotion is placed on display in an almost bitter way, ultimately portrayed through Ish. While the conveyance can be off at times, I found myself enjoying this short title. Sure, there are plenty of titles that poke fun at multiple aspects of gaming tropes and the surrounding culture. But sometimes pulling back the curtain in a creative way can really work to the medium’s advantage.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by Question for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.