South of the Circle brings forward a lot of tropes found in modern narrative-driven games but still manages to carve out a small space for itself. In this review, we’ll explore how the quiet elegance and simplicity of its slow-burn storytelling give it a resonant, mature tone. Enjoy this experience on a quiet and rainy afternoon with a hot beverage of your choice at hand.
South of the Circle is available on PS4/PS5, Steam, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, iOS and Nintendo Switch for $12.99.
Story – Slowly Reaching Great Highs and Lows
The story, which is the centre-piece of the game, is a competently told psychological drama set in the Cold War. You follow Peter, a gentle-hearted professor as you jump between critical moments in his life.
The more action-packed thread of the story follows his attempts to survive a plane crash in Antarctica. His injured pilot Floyd insists he head out alone to get help, but as he staggers through the freezing wasteland from base to base his mind begins to unravel. He encounters mysteriously abandoned research bases and this leads to great tension and some compelling images as the story ratchets up.
The game intersperses his journey with experiences from his past, which bleed into the present. The most important of these relates to his relationship with Clara, a fellow professor. Things start very slow, but he eventually gets wrapped up in her struggles with anti-feminist sentiments in academia when she offers to help him with a paper he has been struggling to write. This is all done against the backdrop of the nuclear arms race and Soviet spies infiltrating Cambridge University, giving the South of the Circle‘s story even more weight.
A lot of the writing is good. A convincing cast of voice actors deliver the believable (albeit sometimes sterile) dialogue. They draw the characters in a nice, clear way without shoving too much exposition down your throat. They are also noticeably sympathetic when they need to be. This makes being around them pretty palatable. You spend enough time with each to form a fair opinion of them.
The game weaves its themes consistently throughout and they don’t overstay their welcome most of the time. Unfortunately, its exploration of masculinity, equality and trust are done in ways you have probably seen elsewhere.
A big part of the experience is that the pacing is slow. This means you have time reflect and let the big set pieces soak in, but it can also give them less bite. When so many of them have the potential to be exciting, it can be a shame in certain moments. Either way the game does a good job of managing your focus so that you aren’t distracted by a lot of busy work. The ending wraps up the Antarctic arc nicely, but the relationship segment will leave you a little deflated.
Overall this is a pretty enjoyable experience, and easily recommended. The chances are that if you like games of the same genre, such as Firewatch and Dear Esther, this will be right up your alley. The walking-simulator genre is beginning to bloat though, don’t expect this to be at the tippy-top of your favourites list.
Gameplay – Keeping it Cookie-cutter
Whereas South of the Circle does make a few interesting choices, most of the gameplay design is standard fare. You have areas to move around, places to travel to and some other minor ways of interacting with the world. You’re frequently prompted to play a role in the conversation by choosing from different emotions to respond with. For the majority of conversations, it really doesn’t feel like your choices make much of a difference… It’s just a way of demanding your attention.
The game prompts you to make more ‘meaningful decisions’ at certain points in the story. When you make them, the icon that represents your choice hovers at the top of the screen alongside the others you have made. This is a nice way of reminding you of your choices and indicating that they are the ones that matter. However this brings us to South of the Circle’s biggest failure by far. They really don’t seem to matter at all.
Without spoiling anything, there is a point near the end of the story where all of those decisions appear at the top of the screen again. You’re expecting to understand how they impacted the story, but the game shows you that they didn’t affect anything. As you make ‘big decisions’ you do so in the hopes of getting a certain outcome, but the game throws it back in your face for the sake of its message. There are artistic reasons for this, but it still detracts from that feeling that it is an interactive experience. This decision left a poor taste in a lot of people’s mouths. It’s a terrible shame, because the story does still work well.
There are a number of sections where you get to interact with the game in different ways, like turning the dial on a radio or shooting cans off of a wall at a funfair booth. These are never challenging, which is a good thing, and offer some more visual interest. They do a pretty decent job of bringing you into the world, but are quite limited in scope.
Graphics and Sound – South of the Circle’s Great Weapon
The game is visually quite striking. The colour palette is engaging, the ways that light and shadows work are pleasing and the minimalism gives everything a clean, artistic look. It really helps underscore the abstract nature of Peter’s reality. The use of negative space is also commendable, and on display in some interesting story moments. You may wander into a shack and suddenly find the negative space a key part of the aesthetic. This builds into the games habit of quickly switching between different looks and locations. If not for this, the pacing would be far too slow.
There are areas where the graphics fall down a bit, but it isn’t a big deal. Peter clips through objects from time to time. The way character’s hands hold objects can be a bit too unrealistic. I did see the odd visual glitch, but nothing that really detracts from the story.
As far as the sound design is concerned, things are relatively basic. There are flowing piano pieces that work well. When the tension is high the music reflects it in some key moments. There is even an old romantic tune that plays in certain segments to set the mood. However nothing stands out as being exceptional, especially with regards to sound effects. There are times where you can hear the sounds from a different time period as you wander through the snow. However, you could do much more in a game where the visual transitions between memories and the present are so good. South of the Circle invites a comparison to film, but doesn’t live up to the standards that film sets.
South of the Circle was reviewed on PC.