Review: South of the Circle
I’m a sucker for a good narrative adventure game, especially if it has a compelling story to tell. However, not all games within this genre are created equal, and titles like South of the Circle make this quite clear. That isn’t to say I had a bad experience during my playthrough, but suffice it to say I was left feeling more confused than engrossed by the end of it.
South of the Circle is the newest title developed by State of Play. It is being published by 11 bit studios and will release on August 3rd, 2022 for PS5, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC.
The Switch version was played for this review.
South of the Circle follows Dr. Peter Hamilton’s journey after he becomes stranded in Antarctica due to a plane crash. Peter’s desperate attempts to help his injured co-pilot and get out of the deserted wasteland he finds himself in is the immediate focus of the story. But soon you find yourself going back and forth between past and present as Peter starts to recall his romance with Clara, a fellow professor he met at Cambridge. These events are set against a political backdrop featuring the Cold War in the 1960s.
Now, I have to say I admire State of Play for how hard they worked to properly flesh out their world. The behind-the-scenes highlights how they went as far as to go to Antarctica to make sure their facts were correct, which is commendable, and translates very well in how factually accurate and real the events in the story feel. However, I am not rating this portion of the review on historical accuracy, but rather how everything unfolded and the characters themselves, and those two things are far less impressive.
It’s not that South of the Circle doesn’t have an interesting premise. The problem lies in that the writers tried to cram a bit too much into their narrative and because the game is rather short, none of those ideas felt like they were properly developed.
For example, most of Clara’s character arc focuses on her budding relationship with Peter, but the most glaring facet of her personality is her view of the male-dominated world that surrounds her. Pretty much all of Clara’s dialogue includes something about her feelings regarding her place as a woman in the environment she’s a part of, especially as it pertains to the university she works at. The game tries to disperse this a little by giving her a somewhat tragic familial background, but this is fleeting and never fully addressed. Perhaps the writers thought adding these one-dimensional thoughts gave her character depth, but it actually made her come off as bland, especially during simple interactions like watching a movie with Peter, as it was taxing to see she couldn’t go two hours without mentioning her disdain for men.
Peter’s character plays out somewhat the same in terms of how one-note he feels, which is weird given that you are constantly choosing his dialogue and actions (within reason). Unfortunately, his meek and cowardly nature seems pretty set in stone. This is highlighted time and time again by the way he interacts with his professor at Cambridge, and despite you being able to push for him to do the right thing, it’s made clear by the setting of the game that he is unable to follow through with his convictions in the end. Because of this, I had an incredibly hard time liking him once the entire plot was revealed.
A lot of the game’s supporting characters felt the same as Clara and Peter, if only because they rarely got screentime. Molly, Peter’s friends, his professor, and dad felt like they were simply inserts meant to move the plot along, and added very little to the story in terms of personal depth. They really only existed in their particular scenes, but once they had served their purpose, it was a toss-up whether you’d see them again or not. This can be extremely jarring when you’re supposed to be playing something that is meant to be emotionally impactful.
I’ll end this part of the review by admitting that I didn’t absolutely hate the story. It does have its moments where it gets you to think about how easy it is to lose the things you care about, as well as how important it is to stick to what you believe in, but because the characters, and even the story itself, don’t properly reflect how doing things the right way in these instances can pay off, it can leave one wondering if those are actually the intended takeaway.
South of the Circle is an interactive adventure game, so there isn’t much hands-on gameplay per se. You make choices for how you’d like Peter to respond to those speaking to him, or to his environment, but there are no true dialogue options, just “moods” that determine whether he’s cheery, assertive, or shy with his words.
This actually leads me to my biggest gripe with the game. It’s extremely frustrating how unintuitive the dialogue options can be. They come in the form of symbols and while there is a guide for what each one means on the game’s start screen (as well as a brief description during the initial tutorial) it can be easy to forget what they stand for, leaving you stranded if you don’t memorize or write them down. It wasn’t a problem often, but I did find myself sometimes pressing a random button because I forgot what the little sun symbol meant versus the rectangle one.
South of the Circle also presents you with some dialogue options that are meant to be more impactful than their regular counterparts, but this didn’t seem to hold true when they unravel and became irrelevant during a particular portion of the game. These choices becoming pointless left me extremely confused because up until that point I was led to believe they mattered.
Finally, the only other thing to mention is a few “mini-games” where you get to things like drive a car, calibrate a radio, and at one point aim a gun. But these are so few and far between and super simple so I wouldn’t consider them something worth getting excited about.
Overall the gameplay was pretty standard for the genre and despite its troublesome dialogue system, I liked it well enough.
The visual and audio portion of this review was one of the things I was most excited to write. I wasn’t super thrilled with the story and had my gripes about the gameplay, but I can’t deny that South of the Circle is a visual MASTERPIECE. No seriously, the transitional moments between past and present were so well done and the world was so vibrant despite its limited canvas. Looking at this game was a treat. Not only was it colorful without feeling cartoony, but the lack of detail on the characters’ faces added a sense of mystery to who they were that ended up being charming in the end.
I’m actually quite surprised with how much I liked the art style in the end because in the past I have found similar-looking games to be lazy in their approach. Perhaps it speaks to how much State of Play knocked it out of the park with their presentation.
I have a lot of praise for the audio as well. The voice acting was excellent. It surprised me to learn how much voice talent they were able to pull together for such a short game, but none of it was wasted. The actors who voiced Peter and Claire in particular did a great job connecting me to their characters. The music was also really good and worked to bring the suspense and melancholy of certain scenes to life rather well.
These two things are for sure the highlights of this title and by far my favorite takeaway.
I think that in some ways I get what South of the Circle was going for. Its online description says that it’s a narrative experience with a strong focus on the weight of choices, and while I do agree that it heavily centers around that theme, I don’t know if I can agree that it executes it well. Still, it’s a visual masterpiece accompanied by great voice acting and music.
Perhaps, if you’re a bit more easy-going than me and don’t mind the one-note characters and multiple plot points that never really go anywhere, you’ll have a much better time playing this than I did. It’s also worth mentioning that the game itself is rather short, so despite how frustrating it can feel, you aren’t exactly wasting a ton of time making your way through it.
All in all, I wouldn’t completely label this game as not worth playing, but I do suggest tempering your expectations so that there is minimal disappointment as you progress through the story. That isn’t to say I regret playing it, but I don’t think I would’ve missed much if I hadn’t.
Review copy provided by 11 bit studios for the Nintendo Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of 11 bit studios.