South of the Circle Review
A very cold war
Every once in a while, a game releases with almost no marketing that manages to redefine the medium for the better. 2013’s The Stanley Parable, 2016’s Firewatch and 2022’s Norco all had limited PR budgets but still made a permanent mark on the industry because they were, and still are, fantastic and thought-provoking experiences. And now, with the unexpected release of South of the Circle on mainstream platforms after its initial launch on iPhone in 2020, developer State of Play can confidently take their place among the short list of indie game developers that created a title that’ll forever characterize the essence of video games.
Like those previously mentioned titles, South of the Circle is a narrative-driven adventure game. The adventure here is a literal one, with the narrative focusing on a mid-1900 British professor’s quest to escape Antarctica. Through a series of unfortunate events, all of which you play through by way of The Walking Dead-esque point-and-click gameplay, Cambridge man Peter finds himself stranded on the frozen continent without any viable means of egress. Left with no other options, he’s forced to venture further and further into the continent while contending with both natural and man-made obstacles.
While South of the Circle’s overarching plot isn’t necessarily anything to write home about, even if it is incredibly interesting as far as survival-type games go, what makes it worthy of a comparison to The Stanley Parable is everything that happens when Peter isn’t freezing to death. In between linear walking sequences, Peter regularly flashes back to his life before he was royally screwed. In those parts of the story, as well as non-nature-related parts of his Antarctic journey, you choose dialogue options that determine the specifics of Peter’s life and the details of how he eventually makes his way back to England.
A story that’s told through flashbacks isn’t anything new for narrative-based games, however what makes South of the Circle such a phenomenal title is how engaging those flashbacks, and the other parts of the plot and related dialogue, are. Peter’s life, both before and during his time in Antarctica, is deeply emotional and thought provoking. He, and by extension you, regularly have to deal with issues related to gender, anti-war activism, academia and Cold War paranoia. While it’s impossible to explain anything more without spoiling pivotal moments in the game’s story, it’s ultimately one of the best plotlines ever coded onto a hard drive, and it’s one that will leave you feeling defeated and depressed in the same way that The Last of Us Part II did.
That feeling is exacerbated by how bloody amazing the game’s voice acting and overall technical direction are, too. While it seems perpetually pointless to discuss graphics and sound design in reviews of modern video games, South of the Circle deserves special praise for both these things. The art direction is eerily similar to the fantastic The Long Dark, but with the added benefit of fantastic voice acting. Gwilym Lee and Olivia Vinall, the voice actor and actresses of Peter and his love interest respectively, make Oscar-worthy performances. That sounds cliche, but seriously, South of the Circle sounds better than it has any right to, and looks great too.
For as great as all these things are, and they truly are phenomenal, it should be noted that South of the Circle doesn’t have a lot in the way of gameplay. This isn’t a huge problem, given that it’s a narrative-focused title akin to the very best historical fiction novels or games, but it’s still slightly disappointing that there’s fewer than five times in the entire game where you’ll be doing anything but moving Peter around an environment or engaging in amazing dialogue sequences.
But, unsurprisingly, this doesn’t make South of the Circle any less of a masterpiece. Even though the game originally launched as an iPhone exclusive, and even though it doesn’t have any real gameplay, and even though it had almost no marketing prior to launch, it’s still one of the best titles available on virtual shelves today. The game’s narrative is emotional and engaging, the themes it discusses are hyper relevant given recent world events and the voice acting and overall technical direction are astoundingly fantastic. If there was ever a game that showcased why the medium should be considered art, and if for some reason The Last of Us Part II, Disco Elysium and The Stanley Parable weren’t around, South of the Circle would be it.
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