They all start with a message. Those games with a deep meaning and a stated purpose, using a virtual world as their canvas. Titles like The Walking Dead or Braid, they want you to feel something first and foremost, at the expense of everything else. The Magic Circle also has a meaning to impart on the player, but I’m not sure if it came first. It’s a game that innovates with both its mechanics and storytelling, bringing the players in and having a nasty conversation with them. It's a game about the people who play games and the people who design them, which understandably isn't everyone's cup of tea. Give it a chance though, and its broken world will enchant you in a way that few others will. As meaningful as the message is, the interactivity is placed first and foremost, and that's why The Magic Circle is a great game and a great experience.
The Magic Circle is not only the name of a game released on Steam by a ragtag bunch of former Irrational developers, it's also the name of the over-budgeted sequel to a much lauded text adventure that has been in the making for twenty long years. You are cast as the silent hero of this perpetually unfinished adventure, forced to contend with bickering developers rather than demonic foes. On this playthrough, you are greeted by a mysterious voice, a trapped soul willing to help you wrestle control away from the "sky bastards" and make something of the mess they have left behind. As your power to shape and break your surroundings continues to develop, you come to understand your captors, their flaws, and what drove them to incompetence.
The concept is a bit daunting when taken in all at once, but it is presented with ease as you play, riffing on player expectations as you acclimate yourself to your surroundings. Since direct combat is still being worked on, your main interaction with the world is the ability to hack and change the code of the game. You can jump into the minds of enemies and turn them into allies, bring back game elements that have been tossed aside, and graft sentience onto rocks and keys. It's reminiscent of Hack 'N' Slash's gameplay, but here there are clear limits to the mechanics, so it is clear what toys you can use to craft puzzle solutions. The meat of the game, where you acquire a horde of monsters to attack for you, is completely free-form, allowing you to explore as much or as little as you want. The world isn't huge, but it is packed with audio and text fragments, developer commentary, and a few side objectives to get past if you choose to.
As I explored, it was always satisfying and hilarious to turn around and see a jumble of robots and corpses marching along as best they could. There is no limit to how many creatures you can get to follow you, so naturally I stumbled along with close to a dozen giant things following along, crowding hallways and elevators. It did make some of the combat trivial after a while, but there was a satisfying ramp to get to that godlike power, and the combat isn't that memorable even if it's fair. What is more engaging is figuring out how to navigate to every last location in the world. Most of this is optional of course, but the excellent character work in the audio bits and the more advanced powers for your minions are all well worth the trouble.
While it's a shame that most of the character moments in The Magic Circle are tied to collectables, their impeccable quality makes you seek them out as if they were essential for completion. Not since Portal 2 has a game presented a narrative this gripping, and what it lacks in jovial humor it makes up for in sheer biting satire. James Urbaniak leads the cast as Ishmael Gilder, a dictatorial designer who is equal parts Dr. Venture and Andrew Ryan. You will notice some Bioshock parallels in the game, which is no surprise considering the developers and their pedigree. However, there is nothing that distracts from the unique styles and breathtaking visuals that are put forth. The game isn't very long, so every line of dialogue has room to breathe and is worth further examination.
If anything, the rest of game is a bit too cramped. It has a lot of ideas in its hacking gameplay, but too few puzzles to truly make them live up to their potential. The story fares a little better, but it could have used a Fort Frolic-like distraction for pacing purposes. There just isn't enough time for the consequences of your actions to set in fully until the grand finale. As it stands now, you can wring the game of its content in four hours, and those who aren't engaged by the story and wish to critical path it could probably get it done in just one. Either way you play it, the narrative is still worth seeing for yourself, especially considering the fact that they managed to figure out how to end this type of game without a horrible boss fight.
If I am a bit vague above, I apologize. This entire review is me tap dancing around what I consider to be something special. The Magic Circle stands proudly alongside The Stanley Parable as a game that expertly examines who plays games and why. It toys around with the idea of a game's protagonist; it laughs at some of the more unfortunate releases that crowd Steam's indie marketplace; it viciously attacks its players only to bring them back with a reassuring nod in their direction. It is a little bit of an autobiography, veering into great satire by making everyone a bit uncomfortable with just how real it's getting. The fact that this dense narrative is packaged side by side with fun and groundbreaking gameplay mechanics is just icing on the cake.
This is one of those titles that is ruined by overzealous explanation. If you follow games closely enough to know the names of developers, or if you just think hacking combined with Pokemon is a neat idea, you owe it to yourself to pick up The Magic Circle and devour it in one sitting. If not, you'd probably be better off playing the gritty reboot of cops and robbers languishing in your backlog.
The Magic Circle was purchased by this reviewer and played through on Steam.
A memorable trip into game design and development hell, The Magic Circle's only sin is that there isn't more of it to play around in. What is here is storytelling and gameplay intermingled with expert care, bringing the player on an intellectual thrill ride that should be seen by all.