The walking simulator is kind of like the ultimate bait and switch genre. Everything from the media surrounding the game, to the very moments before you start playing are all designed with the full intention to prevent you from realizing all you’re doing is pressing a direction and watching a slow moving camera pan along occasionally interesting scenery, always hinting there might have been something exciting happening, but you were just too late to the party.
The Magic Circle doesn’t do that. You know you’re late from the very start. About ten years late, in fact. The Magic Circle is a game trapped in a development hell brought on by its lead designer, Ish, played by James Urbaniak, and his desperate rush to create the perfect game. You play as a play tester hired to go through the first ever playable demo, only to discover that after ten years of development almost no progress has been made. On top of that, the game has actually become sentient in the form of Pro, a bitter program afraid of dying if and when the project is scrapped.
In your short quest to help Pro, you gain the ability to manipulate different object’s digital behaviors. This could be anything from taking away a monster’s ability to walk, to giving that same walking ability to a mushroom. Much of the game is spent going through the world finding objects with special abilities like teleportation, and using them to complete the various puzzles. There’s actually a bit of Metroidvania gameplay going on, as each ability grants access to new areas on the map, allowing you to find more collectibles, which generally take the form of patch notes and developer commentary. I’d highly recommend collecting these as well if you’re interested in the story since there’s a genuinely heartbreaking backstory to what inspired Ish to begin developing The Magic Circle in the first place.
The execution of the gameplay itself is a little shoddy, though. There’s zero indication of what you need to do, or find after a certain point. While this is par for the course when it comes to exploration games, I spent the better part of two hours wandering around the game’s world before discovering what I missed. A little more direction would have been nice. The controls didn’t really work either. Specifically, the jump button. While seemingly unimportant and not worth mentioning, there is actually one jumping puzzle in the game towards that is made infinitely more difficult because sometimes you just won’t jump. Even if it’s a joke to go along with the game’s story, it got old the first time I failed that puzzle, and only continued to infuriate me further.
Fortunately, the game makes up for it’s shortcomings with its incredible aesthetics. Everything from the black and white world being lit up and brought to life (read: color) when a creature walks through it, to the retro-style underworld leftover from previous builds of the game are all incredibly creative and an absolute treat to witness. I adored the music, especially. Each piece is a filler practice recording. It’s difficult to describe my aural pleasure from hearing the music director stop in the middle of a piece and say, “We screwed up. Try again,” and then count down from 4, or to direct the emotions for the piece. It’s so well done, that I almost doubt they were staged.
The Magic Circle is a surprise on every front. I expected a walking simulator, I got a Metroidvania game. I expected a train wreck of a story, and got a futuristic drama. Hell, I expected James Urbaniak to be hilarious only to feel sorry for Ish in the end. In the end, The Magic Circle, while not an amazing, game of the year contender, is still a worthwhile experience that I would recommend anyone have at least once.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to email@example.com.
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