The Magic Circle is a difficult game to discuss because nearly everything in it can be a spoiler. Last summer’s indie darling on PC now comes to the Playstation 4 in the new “Gold Edition” that seems to contain the same content, but includes the many updates that made it into a polished experience. If you somehow have been able to avoid hearing the details about this game, which I had, then there will be plenty of pleasant surprises as this is a unique experience. I know we reviewers like to use buzzwords such as “unique” a lot, but in this case I mean that it is literally unlike anything I’ve played. How much detail I can go into does remain locked behind my strong opinion that nothing in the plot or gameplay should be spoiled, but I’m going to do my best to balance assessment with information. I assure you none of the plot, twists (gameplay or otherwise), or reveals are spoiled in this review.
You play as the hero, a faceless player in an unfinished fantasy game stuck in development hell for the last 20 years. When a unique opportunity to become more than a mere player presents itself, you enter a debug mode of the game that allows you to manipulate the code as you play. From this point you are able to overcome the idiosyncrasies of the developers, or Game Gods as they are known, and discover the secrets hidden within the code of just what has been happening over the last two decades. Being built in Unity, there were certain expectations I had for this game that were drastic misconceptions. For starters, I expected it to perform poorly, which is not the case with The Magic Circle: Gold Edition. Sure, my Playstation 4 was exhausting heat like a quiet jet airplane, but aside from a few hitches the framerate was consistent and experience smooth. Given the premise, opening area, and the nature of most Unity games I mistook this for a plot-based walking sim. The Magic Circle is not that either. It has a plot, in fact it really has three that are all branching around you and don’t become clear until near the very end, but that’s not always the central focus. In fact, there’s a significant portion of the game where the story takes a backseat and is barely present at all. There are puzzles and combat, both of which utilize a relatively basic mechanic of trapping items in your “magic circle” and then manipulating their code or bring dead (ghosted) items back to life. This can include changing an item or enemy’s name, behavior, perceived allies, perceived enemies, forms of attack, and even special abilities. Given that you are now God-like yourself, you can also strip many of these attributes to redistribute elsewhere. This is all balanced by your life, which is the currency to bringing items to life and trapping them, although life giving portals scattered about provide infinite health restoration and respawn points. This is where the brunt of the game comes into play and where The Magic Circle struggles to demonstrate it’s charm upfront, no doubt causing many to leave it and thus not getting to see what it truly has to offer.
Now to be clear, it’s not that The Magic Circle has a “break in” period or that you need to play through certain less interesting areas before you are able to get to the game proper. Once you enter the main area of the game, the sky is the limit as the entire map is open to you from the onset. You are given a single goal, which never changes, and it’s up to you to overcome the challenges one step at a time. That’s the problem. Almost nothing is explained to you aside from what tools you have, but you aren’t given much direction on how to use them. Until you learn to properly utilize the power you have, it just seems like a series of walls that obstruct your ability to move forward. There are many ways to overcome each obstacle – I’m sure there’s a forum somewhere that is chock full of different solutions – but being a traditional gamer I assumed I wasn’t seeing the proper answer to the puzzle or I lacked what I needed to overcome the problem before me. While that is true for a handful of obstacles, most of my issues were simply because I didn’t understand how I was to use the systems. It’s a difficult concept to teach and I’m not sure how you would integrate that into the game, but it’s necessary nonetheless. I can delve into a couple of concepts here, which may give you a better idea of my gripes and what you can expect without spoiling anything. In The Magic Circle there is no death, just a state where you have life (alive) and a state where you don’t (ghost). This is useful because when you are in the ghost state, you can manipulate anything that is also in that state. Perhaps you can’t reach the thing you want to manipulate but if you can kill it, enter a ghost state (die), and get to it you can make it your ally. This is another important concept not really discussed, which is that you can bring any ghosted item to life and if you are also alive you can spawn any allied item to you instantly through the map screen. Not only that, but your allies that can move will follow you and often times this results in them dying due to combat or obstacles. Instead of having to run around looking for a life portal to run back and forth between, you can simply spawn the dead allies to your location and then revive them next to a life portal. In no time you have a fully revived team and a full health bar without any hassle at all. You can even fast travel to the health pool to make your task even easier. With these two key concepts and a decent amount of practice, you should be able to handle your single goal with a lighter degree of frustration. When I finally achieved my goal it took about 30 seconds, but that was hours of setup and exploration in the making.
Despite me saying it was not a traditional walking sim, there will be a great degree of exploring and plenty of fourth wall breaking moments. You will want to go everywhere, look at everything, and eventually something useful will come of it. It’s no point-and-click adventure where you are hunting each pixel and have amassed an inventory you can’t figure out, but you will be wondering into places, often with no direction. A good rule of thumb is that if you haven’t been somewhere, go check it out, and if you’re like me jot down a few notes on the area. This can help you in the future when you find something that can potentially solve a puzzle so you can fast travel over to it and test your theory out. It’s not as heavy handed as it seems and I might even say that there are too few puzzles that are a bit too simplistic overall, but when you get stuck it can make you feel so helpless that you are tempted to quit completely. As for the fourth wall breaking, The Magic Circle achieves this in ways I have never experienced before. Of course I won’t tell you a single thing, but rest assured that it’s deeper than Deadpool simply looking at you and making a brief quip or someone in the world acknowledging the player character exists. When this title is most effective at breaking the fourth wall the result impressed me and put a smile on my face. There is a lot of potential replay value thanks to some of these mechanics and that’s not limited to simply finding 100 percent of the collectibles (although there are plenty for completionists).
I get why this game was such a critical darling. It is fearless as to how it deals with game mechanics, game development, and even an uncomfortable look at the inside baseball of making and releasing a game now that the Internet is involved. I had moments of highs and lows – some of which made me roll my eyes and others that made me want to run to a message board and sing its praises. The Magic Circle is trying to do something special here, and this is the hardest thing to write without spoilers, but I’m not sure the developers at Question considered that many won’t want to the play the overall type of game it is. That said, it is special. It’s trying to to break through what a “traditional” game is and wants to change what a game can be, albeit as a business endeavor. This spread in different directions – the game literally changes what it is multiple times although the theme remains consistent – and sometimes obtuse in what it’s trying to convey and what it expects of you. The Magic Circle feels like a throwback to my frustrations with point-and-click adventures because I’m terrible at figuring out what developers want. Unlike those games, though, I did make it to the end of this without looking up any solutions and without banging my head against the wall. You will have to go into The Magic Circle with a degree of faith that you are going to get out of it what I did, but if you thrive on finding new experiences and new ideas in gaming that shouldn’t be a problem. I can’t, however, promise this game is for everyone and it’s not as accessible as it should be. If you decide to take a chance, the potential reward is great.
Final Score: 3 out of 5
A code was provided for the purpose of this review. The Magic Circle: Gold Edition is available on Playstation 4 digitally on the PSN store for $19.99. It is alternatively available as The Magic Circle on Windows XP+ OS through Steam for $19.99. It took approximately 5 hours to complete and about 80 percent of collectibles found. It was played for a total of 8 hours for the purpose of this review. Due to the nature of several aspects of this game, each individual players’ mileage will vary for an initial and subsequent playthroughs.