By Nikola Suprak 17.04.2017
If someone were to rank "most interesting premises for a story" from most to least promising, following a group of game developers as they worked on a game would have to rank somewhere near the bottom. There's something about watching a group of people typing away at a computer while they desperately try and drink enough coffee to keep them awake that doesn't make it sound tremendously entertaining to watch - and yet, that is exactly where The Magic Circle: Gold Edition takes place, as all the action unfolds literally inside an unfinished title stuck in development hell. There is something really creative and imaginative about the way the game is put together, and that is something that even extends to the gameplay. It sounds like it should be a great experience, but unfortunately, like the fake world it takes place in, it feels like there is something definitely missing here.
When the game starts up, it is apparent almost immediately that it isn't finished. Not the game in The Magic Circle, but rather the game that this game is about. Confused? The Magic Circle tells the story of a game stuck in development hell, from the point of view of someone inside the actual game. You are literally trapped in an unfinished game world as the developers (viewed as gods in this world) fight over every single little feature of the game, changing it, then changing it again, over and over. The dead carcass of a previous incarnation of this game actually lies underneath this newest iteration, which itself is completely lacking in colour or finished textures to show just how much a work in progress this really is. It captures the feel of an unfinished game almost perfectly, and although the game certainly looks bad, it is deliberately made that way to capture the chaos of the development cycle. With little hope of ever seeing a release date, it falls onto the player to try and get things going, but this time from inside the game itself.
While listening to people bicker about trivial things sounds less like a good videogame story and more like the reason no one wants to hang out with that annoying couple from high school any more, there is actually a really interesting and fun story hiding beneath the surface. There are reasons as to why the team here is struggling to put together a coherent game, and through a variety of audio diaries it is possible to slowly piece together the story.
At its heart, this is meant to be a satire of the gaming industry, but the characters here are surprisingly well developed and interesting, despite the fact they aren't seen as anything other than weird disembodied voices. Most of the story is hidden away, to be found by collecting various audio logs, which actually helps to make the story feel a bit more meaningful and organic. It helps that the dialogue is really well written and actually funny, and that the voice acting is excellent. It makes it so going around and trying to find all the collectibles never feels like much of a chore. It is almost surprising how good the story is - it looks like it will be fairly dull at first, and slowly reveals itself to the point where it is hard to not check every little corner, hoping to find just a bit more of it.
What is really interesting about The Magic Circle is that "unfinished, nearly broken game" is more than just the basic concept for the story. It is quite clever how the game actually works this central feature of its theme into the core gameplay. Although the protagonist is currently trapped in the game, they soon unlock the power to alter it, changing how things work from the inside. Enemies and objects come with the inherent properties that developers gave them. Some enemies are hostile to the player. Other things are fireproof. Still others can float or fly.
What is particularly clever about this title, though, is that it is possible to alter all of that. Enemies can be turned from hostile to the player to allies with the player, giving them their own personal bodyguards to transverse the environment with. The flying ability can be stolen from an enemy and given to a rock, which can then be used as a platform to cross a path that couldn't be crossed before. The fake developers here clearly don't know what they're doing, so perhaps it is time someone else took things into their own hands, which is precisely what the game has the player do.
It is a really clever concept and fairly entertaining at first, but the biggest problem here is the game doesn't ever seem to know what to do with it. Sure, basically every enemy can be put on a leash and used as an attack dog, but that really stops being clever after the first time it is done. There really aren't any good puzzles that come from this, and they run out of tricks almost immediately. Here is a gap; use a flying object to cross it. Here are fire enemies; give one of the minions a fireproof modifier. Initially, there seems like so much that could be done with the basic premise, but after the halfway point or so is reached, it becomes painfully apparent that there really isn't anything more in store than this very basic trick. Altering the properties of objects in the game doesn't really make for riveting gameplay, possibly because they fail to put together even one interesting puzzle to make use of this ability. The whole thing feels kind of boring, and while the premise of the gameplay is really quite clever, its execution is not.
Things can also become a bit unwieldy at times, particularly towards the end of the game when your posse starts reaching an absurd size. It is possible to tell the entire group to either stay in one spot or to go to a specific location, but trying to tell only one to go there is essentially impossible. What inevitably ends up happening is there will be one ally that is fireproof that actually should go attack the fire breathing enemy, but every single friend the protagonist so much as smiled at will also run neck first into a blazing inferno.
It is essentially impossible to micromanage the creatures here, and the best way seems to be to remove the movement option for characters you don't want sprinting towards their death - but then it is a pain to switch them back and forth, so inevitably what ends up happening is only a couple wind up coming with the entire game, while the rest are tucked away in some cave and completely forgotten about.
This is meant to be a puzzle game with a semblance of strategy thrown in for good measure, but sadly they never get either aspect of that right. Enemy encounters are a chore, and either it is over before most people are even going to realise that it started, or the player will blink and half of their allies will be dead and on fire because they went somewhere they shouldn't have.
Outside of this, there really isn't too much to do. It is a very brief experience, and can easily be completed in a single day. The emphasis here is meant to be on a sort of organic exploration, where collectibles and the specific characters that need to be found to get to the end are just sort of out there somewhere in the environment for anyone that wants to come find them. This aspect of the game is really quite enjoyable, and a nice big environment to explore with lots of secrets to find could've been a lot of fun.
The Magic Circle doesn't have this, though. It is a relatively small area to dig through, and even the most thorough of completionists will be able to see everything in just a handful of hours. On top of this, the collectibles aren't really anywhere interesting or hard to find. Most of them are just sort of out in the open, like the Easter eggs parents hide for their five-year-olds. An open world puzzle game sounds like a really clever idea, but this world is neither big nor open enough to really put forth anything interesting.
There is a lot to like about The Magic Circle: Gold Edition. This is a really original story, and a clever way to tell it. It might be a short experience, but there is a lot of charm packed into this tiny little package. Additionally, the basics of the gameplay here are quite clever, and it ties back into the story almost perfectly. It is in the execution, though, that things fall apart, and this is one of those games that is a far better experience than it is a game. They never figure out a way to integrate the gameplay into anything cleaver, and all of the puzzles here are extremely basic and not very interesting. This is one of those games that is very easy to root for, but less easy to actually enjoy. It is still probably worth playing through one time just for the story, but don't expect to get too much else out of it.