Gilder is flanked by two subordinate characters, known as Maze and Coda, both of whom have fallen out of love with Gilder, and have varying feelings about project itself. Yet in the decade of working on it, they've been gradually corrupted into smaller versions of Gilder himself, and are just as spiteful and manipulative as he is. Finally, there's the Old Pro, the sentient spanner in the works. He's probably my favourite of the bunch, not least because he is supremely voiced by Stephen "Garrett" Russell, which has the nostalgic part of my brain clapping like a hungry seal. But the writing is worthy of the performance. The Old Pro is delightfully anarchic and wearily earnest, with a wit drier than a cracker sandwich.

The Magic Circle Review [FRIDAY] The Magic Circle Review

The writing and acting game is extremely strong, then. It ventures toward being arch at times, but whenever it verges on smug or indulgent, it pulls back with a joke or a little self-deprecation. There's one section where it does get a little preachy, but even here there's the option to walk out mid-speech. It's also vital to point out that The Magic Circle is not merely a playable hatchet-job of the games industry. It wants to walk its talk, to suggest a way forward, and it does this through how you attempt to push the mighty Ish Gilder off his pedestal.

Basically, the Magic Circle is a half-finished environmental jumble populated by half-finished AI creatures. You can't interact with them directly as a normal game character might. But you can trap them using the literal magic of code, before delving into their programming and editing their AI behaviours. For example, you might invade the virtual mind of a "Howler" dog and alter its "My Enemies Are..." condition from the Hero (you) to other Howlers. Alternatively, you could set it as an ally, causing it to follow you around and defend you from any attack.

The Magic Circle Review [FRIDAY] The Magic Circle Review

Or you could simply strip it of all its behaviours and store them for later use, leaving behind a lifeless husk. Any behaviours you remove from a creature can then be applied to another creature. If you come across an enemy that can fly, or breathe fire, you can take those behaviours and apply them to your friendly Howler ally. As the game is keen to emphasise, it's the ultimate in offering the player agency in the game world, letting them lay their hands on the game's code and prise it apart at the very parameters.

The idea is to encourage the player to create open-ended solutions to open ended puzzles. Unfortunately, The Magic Circle isn't expansive enough to let you explore this system thoroughly. For the most part, you simply have to beat other enemies, and it's easy to build up a small train of pets who can simply bulldoze any opposition they encounter without much thought. I think the game would have benefited from offering a few more obstacles for the player to navigate, although I recognise the difficulty in creating puzzles that can be solved in a variety of ways.

The Magic Circle Review [FRIDAY] The Magic Circle Review

This isn't the only area where The Magic Circle feels (perhaps fittingly) underdeveloped. Early on the Old Pro gives you the ability to fill in certain areas of the world, with the promise that you can finish Gilder's work so the game can be shipped. But in practice this never amounts to much. Mostly I used it to resurrect dead pets. Furthermore, the game doesn't feel particularly great beneath the fingers, although again it's a game about a half-finished game, so it would be odd for it to be as watertight as a Blizzard title. Lastly, while The Magic Circle promises full control, it regularly wrenches that away from you to further the story. I didn't mind this too much because it's an excellently told story, but at times it feels like the satirical element of the game hinders its more experimental side.

The Magic Circle Review [FRIDAY] The Magic Circle Review

Ultimately, The Magic Circle doesn't quite fulfil its potential, partly because it lacks the scope needed to do so, and partly because its "game within a game" structure causes it hard problems that would be tricky to solve without contradicting the fiction. But it is so very nearly there, and what it does offer is without a doubt worth your time.
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October 14 2021 | 15:04