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The Magic Circle Review

The Magic Circle Review

A truly innovative and entertaining experience. An exceptional game that I would highly recommend.


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Genre: RPG/Adventure 
Release date: July 9, 2015

“Wit must be your sword and Virtue your shield.  Now go, HERO, and take back the circle…” – Ishmael Gilder, The Magic Circle.

What’s so Magical about this Circle?

The term ‘magic circle’ is originally attributed to Dutch historian Johan Huizinga1 who used it to describe a type of playground; a forbidden spot within which special rules apply; a temporary world apart from the ordinary. The concept was applied to computer game design by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, the authors of Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, who discussed the idea that a game creates a special place in time and space. Thus, the magic circle of a game is where the game takes place and to play a game means entering a magic circle.

It’s not surprising then that Question Games chose the title The Magic Circle for their first release. Question is an independent development team made up of Jordan Thomas, Stephen Alexander, and Kain Shin. As a group, their credits include Bioshock, Bioshock2, Thief: Deadly Shadows, and Dishonored. Using the Unreal Engine, along with a dose of creativity and self-deprecating humor, they’ve created the most magical circle that I’ve entered in years.

In the game, Ishmael Gilder, a fictional developer who released a successful text adventure in the 1980s, has been working on a graphical sequel ever since. He’s teamed up with developers Maze Evelyn and Coda to complete his project in time for a product demo at the fictional E4 trade show.

You enter this magic circle as THE HERO – a player who’s tired of waiting for the game to be finished and has decided to take matters into his own hands. You step into the unfinished game world and begin editing it from the inside. Throughout the experience, you’re privy to the activities of the development team (aka ‘The Gods’). They’re represented in the game as floating eyes or as disembodied voices, interacting with each other in the “real” world. Within the magic circle, you are joined by The Old PRO, a cynical and endearing curmudgeon who delights in and encourages your antics. He is a game protagonist from a previous era who’s been abandoned by The Gods and sees you as his ticket out.

I Saw the Light… No More Darkness, No more Night

Unlike a traditional RPG, The Gods have failed to give you any skills or weapons. You do find a sword in the opening scene only to have it ripped away when The Gods decide to remove combat from the game. This leaves you alone in a ‘work in process,’ armed only with your wits. For me, this wasn’t enough. I finished the opening segment and found a ghost of myself in a seemingly inescapable situation. Thinking I must have made a wrong turn, I restarted the game several times but continued to end up in the same predicament. Faced with no other choice, I did what all dead heroes should do and moved towards the white light. Instead of crossing to the other side however, I ended up at a different entry point leading to the same magic circle. Hmm….

This resulted in my own less-than-positive first impression of The Magic Circle. With the nagging sense that I was missing critical information, I continued to beat my hero’s head against unfinished walls. At some point, I began to seriously consider the “I Quit” option. On a hunch, I did a Google search and found the YouTube Developer Session EGX 2014 video with Jordan Thomas of Question Games. He discusses the premise of The Magic Circle and does a demo/overview of gameplay. Eureka! My own lightbulb came on and I restarted the game with a new sense of purpose.

If I Could Talk to the Animals

In truth, THE HERO is a sad excuse for an adventurer. Without any means of defending yourself, your survival odds are nil. Your only option is to forge alliances with the denizens of The Magic Circle. Once trapped by you, they can be engineered/edited to meet your needs. You can mix and match their attributes in a way that would make Dr. Frankenstein proud. Soon I was surrounded by an entourage of creatures that included Howlers, Jugadillos, Mushrooms, and a Wizard. Some walked, some flew, and some breathed fire. Some were fireproof, others held weapons, and each would protect THE HERO at all cost. As I edited these creatures, each was magically transformed into something amazing. I knew that I had fully embraced The Magic Circle when I began naming each member of my ragtag band.

The game opens in a black and white landscape prototype. It’s similar to concept art and is sketchy but hints at a great deal of promise. Areas of color appear in the monochromatic world to indicate items of interest to THE HERO. As you interact, more is revealed about the story and the environment. One of your primary tasks is to manage your level of Life. Most actions have an energy cost and you’re required to recharge regularly. This is made easy by the fact that life is abundant in The Magic Circle and, at times, being dead can work to your advantage.

In keeping with the idea that you are trespassing in someone else’s game and not bound by rules, you are free to wander in any direction you choose. The Old PRO identifies your primary quest and then states the obvious: You lack the skills to accomplish it. You then embark on a non-linear journey of discovery, extending the environment as you go. The game is open-ended and allows each player to take his/her own path, based on his/her personal style of play.

The idea of using a motley crew of collected creatures to compensate for your own lack of abilities and weapons requires some non-traditional thinking. I found myself strategizing outside of the magic circle and then starting the game back up in order to try a new approach. The Magic Circle rewards conceptual problem-solving rather than hand-eye coordination. Thus, overcoming a challenge is a reason for celebration of self. When the Hiver Queen died, I did the happy dance and shouted (to no one in particular), “YES!  THIS HERO IS ONE CLEVER GAMER!!”

The Way Things Work

To support the “unfinished” theme, the interface is purposefully primitive and reminded me of the old DOS games with text editors. Navigation and control require a mouse and a few keys. Your movements and actions are fairly limited and include walking, jumping, using energy and taking energy. In an odd twist of nostalgia, there are sections of The Magic Circle that take place in an abandoned space station. Although Shodan was not present, I was immediately reminded of Looking Glass Studio’s 1994 classic, System Shock. The space station is a crude remnant of an earlier game iteration that has been abandoned by The Gods in favor of more current graphics. However, you are able to “reactivate” this forgotten code and make it a part of your journey.

The Magic Circle provides a map that greatly enhances playability for the lazy gamer. I’ve always resented having to repeatedly traverse game landscapes in search of missed clues. With this map, you can hop back to any point previously explored with a single click. You can also summon any creature that you have previously edited which eliminates the need to travel with a ‘cast of thousands.’ 

I would have liked to see an option to create multiple save points. The game saves only at a single point in time, using either a menu option or an auto-save at key moments in your journey. There were several times when I wanted to restore to a previous place in the game to test the results of a different choice. As it stands, this is not easily accomplished in The Magic Circle without restarting from the beginning or attempting to “undo”  by returning vanquished enemies to life.

The humor is dark and, at times, subtle. The dialog is intentional and satirical rather than silly. For those who are familiar with software development and product demos, The Magic Circle seems dangerously close to the truth. If you have walked that path in the real world, you will find yourself laughing out loud at how well Question Games has captured the essence of a troubled project. Developers bicker, funding issues loom, creative egos compete, setbacks persist, and testers keep finding flaws. In spite of everything, THE DEMO must go on and everything must appear to be fully functioning as designed.

This is not to imply that such a background is a prerequisite to enjoying The Magic Circle. For many, it will be pure entertainment; a delightful romp through the development of an imaginary game. At a minimum, it will add to your appreciation of what goes into bringing a game to market.

But Wait, There’s More

When I completed the primary quest in The Magic Circle, I expected the game to be over. However, you have the option of hiding in the game world and digitally hitchhiking to Ishmael’s product demo at E4. Although this section of the game is less interactive and has a lot of dialog to absorb, it results in one of the best game endings that I have ever encountered. With some encouragement from the Old PRO, you have the opportunity to participate in THE DEMO in a totally unexpected way. The results are genuinely hilarious. All I can say is that you’ve just got to play it to believe it.

Then, as a final gift to the player, The Magic Circle offers something unique. Outside of the story, you have a place to play with Creator Tools to construct your own mini-game. You’re provided with the building blocks of landscape, characters, treasure, magic, and music. You can craft these together and then explore the world you’ve built and run your own scenario. It’s a small game sequence, but the art of creation is infinitely rewarding and it gives one an inkling of the complexity of “real” game development. Of course, the Old PRO is there to critique your work (mine scored at the very high end of the “boring” scale) and remind you that, as a novice, you have a very long way to go!  He goes on to encourage you to continue creating because “It takes years of practice to suck at this!” (“this” being game development).

In a word, The Magic Circle is magical. Question Games has produced a truly innovative and entertaining experience. As most of us know, a novel idea is not enough to make a great game. It takes a special kind of imagination and talent to bring such an idea to life in a way that makes us want to play. Question Games has succeeded with brilliant execution. The result is an exceptional game that I would highly recommend. 


1 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1955) .

Grade: A-
Non-linear game with creative problem-solving makes for a very satisfying experience
Enjoyable story with a GREAT ending for those who persevere
Adventurers should not shy away – no combat skills are required and death is not permanent
– Open gameplay may initially baffle some adventurers such as myself. Take heart in the wisdom of Ishmael who reminds us that, “The path of heroes is by no means easy.”

System Requirements
OS: Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8
Processor: AMD Athlon 64 Processor 3800+ 2.4Ghz or better, Intel Pentium 4 530 3.0Ghz Processor or better 
Memory: 2 GB RAM
Graphics: NVIDIA 7800GT 256MB graphics card or better, ATI Radeon X1900 256MB graphics card or better that supports Shader Model 3 and has at least 256 MB of VRAM
DirectX: Version 9.0c 
Hard Drive: 2 GB available space
Sound Card: 100% DirectX 9.0C compliant sound card or onboard sound
Additional Notes: NOTICE: Intel HD 4000 chipset is not supported


OS: OS X v10.7 or higher
Processor: 1.80GHz Processor
Memory: 2 GB RAM
Graphics: ATI Radeon HD 3870 / NVidia Geforce 640M

Hard Drive: 2 GB available space

Additional Notes: NOTICE: Intel HD 4000 chipset is not supported


Cindy Kyser

Cindy Kyser

Cindy’s love affair with gaming began when she opened a mailbox in front of a white house and took the first step in a long series of adventures. ‘Back in the day,’ Cindy was a regular contributor to JA and an active member of the online gaming community. She has attended several E3s and has had the pleasure of spending time in person with both Ray and Randy. Her all- time favorite adventures include the Tex Murphy series, the Gabriel Knight series, and The Longest Journey. She also enjoys RPGs and her list of ‘best ever’ includes Fallout, Asheron’s Call, and Planescape Torment. Â Frustrated with the cost of rising PC system requirements, Cindy decided to switch to console and tablet gaming. Although you can teach some old dogs new tricks, she discovered that console controller dexterity is a skill set that she is lacking. Her results with tablet gaming were not much better. With the exception of a few gems such as The Room and Forever Lost, there is a limit to how much one can play Candy Crush and Hidden Object Adventures. Having proved that pure escapism is worth the investment, she has a new gaming laptop and is back to her search for the perfect adventure. Â After spending most of her life in Los Angeles and Atlanta, Cindy escaped the stress of urban life and moved to rural Arkansas. To show that she has become a true Arkansan, she has taken up deer hunting, wears pink camo, and put a chicken coop in her backyard. On a stressful day, she can be heard yelling ‘Woo Pig Sooie’ when all else fails.

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