When does a game know it’s a game? When and why do we want to peek behind the curtain and see the wheels turning? There must be a game you’ve played in the past that suddenly breaks, with the code and the world collapsing around you. The PC version of the recent Batman Arkham Knight game is famous for it, or I could talk about the Assassins Creed Unity skinless face and bulging eyeballs incident.

Well The Magic Circle: Gold Edition is all about a broken unfinished game – one in which you are the tester trapped like a ghost within the machine. It’s about game publishing, game developers, game betas and the gamer. But is it magic enough?

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You start by listening and watching a loading scene for a grand adventure with a dramatic voice-over. Then the voice-over turns into an argument between the developers of the game. You’re then placed in the classic RPG burning village scene with a first person view and are escaping through the village. You hear voices in the background trying to act out the scene but they break into heated discussions about what should happen next. You might try a door to a straw hut only to be told in post it note form that this area isn’t ready yet and they haven’t enough time or resources to make it happen. This sums up the nature and tone of The Magic Circle completely and utterly. As you progress further you see that the textures are shoddy and lumpy, the graphics haven’t be cultured and are still pencil drawn. Then, just as soon as you’re done, the developers show you an unfinished final cut scene and the credits roll. Is this the end? No it’s just the beginning because a strange glitch in the game starts talking to you and tells you the only way forward is to break the game itself. And so you try…

The controls are pretty straight forward as you move around in first person. There’s a jump button and a button for gaining life force. This life force gives you the ability to trap items. Now here’s the clever thing…when said item is trapped you can then enter into the “code” of the item, monster or creature and change their game settings or powers. You can make the creature follow you around, doing your bidding as your ally, or you can steal their abilities and use them on other items or creatures. You can make it weak or strong etc.…this is a very nice feature that gives you a host of possibilities to play with. You can’t actually perform attacks yourself, so you have to be cunning to defeat any enemy, sending trapped creatures to fight your battles or send them off to find hidden paths unavailable to you. This is the most innovative, unusual and clever device I’ve seen in a game for many a year. The rest of the gameplay found in The Magic Circle is a mixture of puzzle solving and exploration, something which keeps moving the story forward towards the final goal.

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Story and writing wise there is a lot to like here. The main thrust of the dialogue is witty, very meta and thought provoking. It really does question the “who’s really in control” message here and there are some brilliant insights into how games are made, developed and marketed. As you move around the broken world you can pick up emails and post it notes from the developers that are really funny; it’s good to hear about the lack of funding or the lack of overall purpose of what they are trying to achieve. Some of the writing sometimes hammers the point with some heavy hands a few times, but this is rare because the rest of the experience is really thought provoking.

Looks wise this a strange one to comment on, because the purpose is to look unfinished and blocky. Well I can tell you it does this with bells on. I really like the outlines of levels and worlds that are half finished and incomplete, so when you, as the player, add colour to the world using your powers it works well as a device. The creatures and things you meet are intentionally like an old PS2 adventure game and one whole level is clearly inspired by early versions of Doom. The soundtrack is repetitive and can get annoying but as I said before I think this is the intention of the makers as it’s a reflection of a game not ready for release. The voiceover work is very strong indeed, whether it’s the bickering developers always being annoyed, to the fan girl intern and the brilliant gruff private eye musings of the god like guide. These moments are the heart of the game and the performers don’t disappoint.

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Overall I enjoyed my time in the “Magic Circle”. The ideas, innovation and truly meta concepts are a fresh look at the game industry and the problems occurring when making them. Littered with nuances and clever touches, the game is a curiosity that you have to play at some point. However good this game is as a concept, playing it itself is quite a chore. The controls feel clunky and the pace of it seems off kilter. There are a few moments when you’re being chased that will easily make you wish you’d switched it off, never to play again.

That would be a shame though as there is lots to admire here and lots to make you think about. Just imagine what’s happening behind the scenes the next time you play your Triple A games.

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