By: Mike Chen
The Magic Circle: Gold Edition is unlike any game you’ve played before. Part Minecraft, part first-person sandbox, and part real-time strategy, this satire of the game industry relies on ingenuity more than twitch mechanics or weapons. The result is a fun and unique adventure despite a number of limitations.
Everything starts off like a standard first-person adventure. However, once the game’s true meta nature is revealed, The Magic Circle’s primary mode of attack and defense stems from menus. Rather than a sword or gun, the right trigger blasts out a bit of in-game magic, which freezes enemies who you can then hack. This mechanic is versatile and clever, and it reveals the game’s secret weapon: your creativity.
The method of handling enemy attributes — everything from its mode of movement (legs, wings, etc.) to attack (weapons, melee, etc.) — is handled via a menu. Sadly, the designers made the strange decision of having the menu controlled as a cursor on the right analog stick, perhaps to maintain the first-person illusion.
However, this is a bit clunky, and a simple toggle menu would’ve expedited many of the choices in the game. Once you’ve built your army of followers, you can direct them where to go and what to do, almost like a first-person real-time strategy game.
Outside of that, you have standard first-person movement controls and a left trigger button to siphon “life” (essentially an energy source that can be given to restore your health or your ally’s). The directional pad is used to bring up other options, including an in-game map and cycling through your accumulated allies.
Everything you see in The Magic Circle is stylized. Because the game takes place in a half-developed game with hidden previously scrapped attributes over a long development cycle, the game veers off in a number of areas.
For the most part, the overworld has a stylized comic-esque look, primarily black-and-white except for areas you uncover. Other sub-areas will bring up different aesthetics; for example, there’s a deleted space station similar to the original Half Life that plays significantly into the game.
The game’s cast is filled with a handful of principle characters, each of whom has a different stake in the game’s development. All perform their roles well and help immerse you in the game’s rather bonkers world and tumultuous back story.
Be forewarned — there’s a LOT of exposition at times, and while the game is clearly a satirical commentary on the gaming industry itself, sometimes it’s a little too meta for its own good.
At its core, The Magic Circle is about playing a game using developer’s tools. See that mushroom over there? Edit it to give it legs and a rail gun. What about that little bot over there? Change its preference so that it only attacks those turtle things — with the new teeth you just gave it. By freezing enemies and editing them, you can stock up their attributes in your inventory and redistribute them in nearly unlimited combos.
Games like Fallout 4 and Borderlands let you create infinite combinations of modded weapons; same principle here, except it’s every NPC in the game. And once you capture them, they can follow you around, being your army and toolkit for overcoming obstacles. One of the great joys of The Magic Circle is the haphazard way of crafting solutions to problems.
The game takes place in a sandbox environment, encouraging exploration and return visits to areas once you have more tools in your toolbox. This is equally freeing and frustrating, because once you get over the novelty of the really cool edit mechanic, you’ll find yourself consulting the map and wandering/fast-traveling around without much purpose… which is kind of the point based on the in-game narrative, but it still feels a little empty.
Speaking of narrative, The Magic Circle will undoubtedly come off as clever and funny at first. The deeper you get into it, however, the more meta the narrative becomes, and that may lose some of its appeal.
It’s hard to tell how much of the game’s narrative was spawned from satire versus just pure venom for the industry, as pretty much all of the principal caricatures are mocked: the auteur developer, the zealous fanboy community, the exhausted beta tester, the burnt-out coder.
Also, for better or worse, the game is relatively short — about 4-5 hours of gameplay, perhaps a bit longer if you’re really into experimenting.
You’ve never played anything quite like The Magic Circle: Gold Edition before, and that means that it can be one of the most creative and unique experiences in recent years. However, it can also be repetitive and a bit aimless at times.
Your enjoyment really depends on how much you like modding and creative problem solving; those looking for something more immediate will be turned off, while those who love tinkering will find something truly one-of-a-kind with The Magic Circle.