Captivating narrative adventure from the Cold War era

Video games have the power to tell incredible stories by their very nature, with interactivity driving narratives like no other medium can. They can also be a vehicle for stories that could easily fit on the page of a book or the length of a TV drama, where player decisions matter little. That’s what Virginia, fire watch, and even the likes of The Last of Us and Uncharted provide: absolutely compelling stories that keep you hooked throughout, driven by stick twists and button presses and ultimately offering only an illusion of agency. No, you can’t spare the doctors. Yeah, Joel is kind of the bad guy.

Watch a trailer for South of the Circle below.

South of the circle is such a game, a narrative adventure with its setting split between the lives and loves of Cambridge scholars and a conspiracy set in the frigid extremes of Antarctica. Developed by State of Play, a UK studio with BAFTA wins to its name, and published by 11 bit studios (This war of mine, frostpunk), his credentials are impeccable. His acting talent has experience in major motion pictures and big budget TV productions and the dialogue is exceptional, every pitch of performance perfect as every whisper of fear or puff of affection arrives with touching sincerity. Visually, it’s incredibly striking, bold flat colors and a sort of film grain blending together for fascinating effect – even if the animation sometimes looks like 1990s rotoscoping and there are unfortunately some exaggerated cutouts. And the plot of South of the circle is fantastic, its Cold War-era mysteries unraveling at exactly the right pace throughout its four-hour runtime.

South of the circle / Credit: 11 bit studios

And yet, it’s still a video game – and what you do, as a player, in South of the circle is extremely limited. Playing as Peter, exploring either a series of abandoned bases in the frozen south or quaint public houses in the British countryside, you walk a little and talk a lot, with dialogue options not written as specific reactions but based on different feelings, each of which has a specific icon attached. When you are asked a question, you may have three options: a red circle means panic, worry and confusion; a gray-green rectangle of assertiveness and strength; and a solar enthusiasm and curiosity for design. Elsewhere there’s a caring option, and one for negativity, but you never really feel in complete control of how Peter conducts himself with that broad brushstroke interface.

South of the circle / Credit: 11 bit studios
South of the circle / Credit: 11 bit studios

On the one hand, it encourages some replay value as there are a handful of key decisions that impact the scenes at the end, but on the other hand, there’s no significant change to impress the audience. story because it is supposed to end in a certain way, at least in its present. (and isn’t memory a funny thing, so eager to remember things too kindly). And that’s fine, not a complaint but rather an observation for anyone watching this and hoping for more in their decisions, which means more than minor deviations. And while walking – the stick controls are imprecise, betraying the roots of this game as a precedent apple arcade exclusive (but Switch users can take advantage of the touchscreen) – thinking outside the box is impossible. You move Peter to very clearly designated destinations, any search for Soviet secrets deemed useless – well, that is a bloody gel – and objects to interact with designed to be easy to spot, appearing with contrast against their backgrounds.

South of the circle / Credit: 11 bit studios
South of the circle / Credit: 11 bit studios

The most important person for Peter throughout the story is Clara, whom he meets on a train and with whom he forms a relationship – at first strictly professional, but which evolves rather quickly towards something else. Together they work on a scientific paper examining weather patterns and how clouds move around the world. and from there, Peter’s seniors at Cambridge and some UK government departments took an interest in the couple’s work, for reasons I won’t go into here. With its 1960s setting, Peter’s peers and friends have a very cold appreciation of Clara’s contributions, to say the least; and flashbacks to Peter’s childhood are loaded with attitudes toward women and parenthood that are now outdated and offensive. Some of what is said and done is quite uncomfortable, but these cultural norms of the time help center the story in its historical place and give it greater emotional weight.

South of the circle / Credit: 11 bit studios
South of the circle / Credit: 11 bit studios

That says a lot about the strength of South of the circle‘s account that I found myself Googling for information about its events, to see how grounded it was in the truth of the time as the world’s superpowers exchanged menacing glances and threatened full-fledged nuclear war. I even looked at the Mini on the treads seen in the promotional images and discovered that it was a real thing, the Mini-Trac, of which a total of three were made and only one used by the British in Antarctic. The deeper you play, the more concept art and research photos are unlocked as extras, exemplifying the efforts of the State of Play team to achieve the atmosphere – oppressive, deadly and beautiful – of the only world (mostly) uninhabited continent just right. Again the dedication that went into this game is there on screen, in the script, in the wonderful way everything clicks in its last 30 minutes and the clues you didn’t catch before flashing in one bright bulb. realization of the moment.

South of the circle / Credit: 11 bit studios
South of the circle / Credit: 11 bit studios

But again, it’s a video game. And he has his problems exclusively related to the video game. Some will look at that four hour runtime and think it doesn’t represent good value for money (even with the game under £12), and that’s their prerogative, although I’m really not in the camp of game satisfaction being based on an equation of hours per pound. There are also a few bugs that I encountered, but State of Play is aware of them and fixes will be released (plus nothing particularly broke the game). Controls can be tricky, no character can hold anything properly (mugs, pens, guns, those hands are everywhere breaking immersion), and these sentiment-based responses are a design decision that will divide . I think this somewhat undermines the way you want to play Peter – you might think you’re going to offer support to Clara only to accidentally put her down – although these trades still resolve in a way that fits the game and its results.

South of the circle / Credit: 11 bit studios
South of the circle / Credit: 11 bit studios

South of the circle is a challenging narrative adventure that fans of this low-interaction, high-plot satisfaction genre will love and love fire watch I would absolutely read the novelization of this one. (Can someone please make this happen?) I’ve taken so many screenshots of how beautiful this game is at times, and any version that makes me search for more context wide for its setting and its events is good. But it has enough finesse, enough small flaws, for the overall impression to be of excellence just below. If you’re someone who enjoys the twists and turns of a love story that you know is built on weak foundations, who appreciates revelations that take their time but lose no power in doing so, and that Don’t mind that the gaming side of the experience is a bit uneven, then this is for you. Anyone else, know what you’re getting into before venturing into these wilds – more so than our Peter ever does, anyway.

Advantages: fantastic story, beautiful art, excellent performances

The inconvenients: some tricky and imprecise commands, the dialog system does not always satisfy

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