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Review – The Magic Circle

A parody of gaming auteurs, The Magic Circle presents itself as an incomplete game that you are playing while it is under construction, right down to the hovering cameras of the admins floating around openly discussing the development process. A black and white fantasy world filled with monsters and wonders, and placeholder objects, unrendered models, floating production notes, object interactions filled with placeholder text, and pieces of an old game spliced together with the new content.

I have not finished this game… but I still have some thoughts…

Story

Three designers are at odds at the head of a beleaguered dev team who grow tired of a project constantly changing and shifting according to the whims of the auteur, “Ish” Ishmael Gilder, lauded for his previous achievements in gaming, sitting at the top of a personality cult in which his genius is presumed limitless, and wielding a crowd-sourced budget with no studio to answer to and pull funding. As the game progresses we find out some stuff about Ish… he’s been sitting on some dark secrets that make him simultaneously the villain, and deeply tragic… but that’s for you to discover.

The disenchanted pro-gamer “Maze” was once an adherent of his, but after being bound by contract to his service she does all she can to get an actual game on shelves rather than circling the eternal drain. Between them, intern Coda seems to be playing both against the other, playing the worshipful cultist of Ish, and underhanded cohort to Maze, all while apparently pursuing her own ends.

The only – apparently – trustworthy voice is… actually the voice of Garret and Corvo Atano, Stephen Russel! Naturally I trust him immediately and without question. He appears to be some kind of sentient NPC, a ghost in the machine, a voice that has grown enraged by living in a world whose gods float about omnipotently and arbitrarily changing things, leaving things unfinished, and leaving nothing stable. He likes you though, and he thinks you can help end things , for the better or worse.

You are a playtester, a QA assistant with a particular ability to break into the world and change things, and interact with things that no longer exist… more on that shortly.

Style

Visually the game is pretty cool. The design is intended to look semi-unfinished, complete with mismatched styles colliding and the inclusion of no-longer existent content which is archaic and pixelated. It’s not seemless, it’s not supposed to be seemless, it’s supposed to look ridiculous. The floating eyes of the dev-team are also out of place, and render the in-world grid as they pass. You even spawn on the 0,0,0 axis point marked by the arrows. The whole thing is made to feel unfinished, and while that may sound low-effort, it’s clear how much work went into that look.

Colour signifies importance, it forms your pools of energy, fills your puppets (again, coming to that) and spills out from you as you walk, showing you a glimpse of “what should have been”.

Gameplay

Ok, the Style section is short because here’s the meat and potatoes of this game.

Very early on, we are told that we will not be fighting in this game, the great and all-powerful Ish has decreed that this will be a game about resolving things through wit and cunning, and diplomacy. Shortly thereafter we are told we will be breaking the game to solve it by our friendly neighbourhood NPC, and we learn how to screw with local instances. Deleted content can be resurrected, properties of creatures can be messed with and moved around, and things start to get interesting.

By draining one of the hounds of its ability to move, and granting a few properties to the nearby mushroom, I had created a bouncing mushroom of murder, and he has not left my side. He has since gained a flamethrower, an aerial for disabling doors, and brothers and sisters made of pixels and code with similar world-ending powers. Together we have overcome monsters, solved puzzles, and are… maybe two thirds of the way through the game? I think I broke a puzzle so I may not be able to complete the game without a total reboot, not sure, I will report back.

Where the illusion of an incomplete game crumbles is in the way creatures change when you modify them. A miscellaneous corpse shouldn’t be wielding a laser-sword or flamethrower, and therefor should not have a specific model to reflect the ability. The same applies to doorbot, who comes complete with a set of animations to reflect powers he should not possess. But dammit if it’s not a cool feature! Visually it makes you want to mess around with every creature just to see what you can create, tactically it makes you consider how a fight will resolve.

All you can do to combat this dangerous mish-mash of worlds is manipulate the local fauna to fight for you, and I am at the head of an army of assorted sci-fi and fantasy horrors mangled to suit my own twisted design (bwahahahaaa). It makes combat more of a puzzle solving exercise than an actual pulse-pounding test of reactions. It’s this shift of approach I think I needed this week. I tried spending a couple of hours in Borderlands, it didn’t stick, but The Magic Circle has recharged my mental batteries.

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