South of the Circle Review (PS5)
If we get out of this alive, you owe me a drink.
Publisher: 11 bit studios
My family was never rich enough to take vacations (not even to travel a state away) like my friends were able to, but I always fantasized about being able to. So many rollercoasters, conventions, and just places I still want (or wanted, in the case for some that were only temporary) to go to. Of course, I also imagine the worse if by any chance I do get the ability to. Especially if it involves flying as I am definitely not ready for a plane crash scenario (assuming I’d survive the initial crash).
South of the Circle opens on circumstances that we all fear will happen. The game opens with an aftermath of a plane crash in Antartica and one of the men waking up and quickly waking up the pilot in a panic. You soon find out that the character you play as is Peter and the pilot, Floyd, is injured. Luckily, Floyd was able to do an emergency landing, leaving both of you alive and the plane mostly intact. It doesn’t bode well when radioing for help as no one is picking up your signal. Stranded in the Antartica south of Deception Island (literally south of the circle, as Deception Island is roughly circular), it’s either stay and hope someone eventually picks up the signal before you two freeze to death…or for Peter to go out to the nearest outpost for help.
Peter musters up every ounce of courage and sets out into the freezing cold and snow, being guided only by the blinking red light. Of course, nothing can be as simple as this as you stumble upon a mystery. No one is at the British outpost, despite that there has to be a team out there at all times, and it seems that they left quickly. That, or something wiped them away due to the concerning documents you find. This mystery not only news on Peter’s mind as well, but this also requires him to travel further in hopes to find another soul out there. Somewhere.
Alongside this story of survival, we get flashbacks of Peter’s life before this, seeing how Peter ended up in a situation that got him to travel to Antartica and why he did. You get to learn that Peter who lectures at Cambridge about his passion of tracing the path of the world’s clouds and the data that can bring. He is also still working on his paper, but he’s still trying to prove this as well as the perfect subject. There is also a love story here, as the first memory Peter looks back on is him meeting a woman named Clara, who also lectures at Cambridge and working on her own paper. He actually thinks about her a lot and we get to see them interact more, her helping him with his research (like a lot, and it did seem weird she was more invested in it than him in these scenes), and a bond form between them as they start dating.
The choices you make here are different than you normally are used to. Rather than it being different pieces of dialogue, this one seems to be the mood or the tone of which you have Peter say it. When an opportunity arises, circles will appear varying in five different symbols. Considering you have a couple seconds at best to pick, this is meant so you can pick quickly. Though, each symbol has three different emotions it represents so it’s not going to be as clear as to how Peter is going to react. Like a red dot, the only you encounter first, means panic, confusion, and concern; a sun means enthusiastic, interested, and curious; and a lone purple dot at the bottom means shy, negative, and downcast. For what it’s worth, it does work. Those that don’t like this system will not like it, but for those that don’t mind, it does let you pick quickly as you do know the general feel of what the symbol will mean.
Considering that the game only tells you what each symbol means once, and it’s easy to overlook, I do recommend going to the “Help” section of the menu before starting. When I first started, I was so confused that I admittedly put the game down, but when I returned and looked (I also wrote them down but that’s neither here or there), I understood it more. Looking at them now, it’s not that hard to guess what they all mean aside from the purple dot.
There are some traditional choices sprinkled in, but with the same amount of time you have to pick the symbols. You just get the pictures of what you’re trying to choose in these scenarios. I did feel these went by too fast before I could really take it in. Granted, you could use the argument that this system’s point is to use your instincts…which I can’t argue with that.
Though, I do wish you had a choice to stay silent, or maybe it be more of a neutral tone. Especially since (seemingly) a lot of the time you only have one choice. It makes sense in this context that you can just have Peter say nothing (or neutrally say the line) rather than that emotion being automatically picked and wonder why you were given an interaction there at all.
Honestly, I really liked how this story was structured and told. This can easily be messed up, as I have played other games that had a similar story structure, either in its execution or how engaging it ended up being (or both). South of the Circle ended up hitting that perfect line of it being engaging and the pieces of the events leading up to the plane crash being in order and making sense.
After all, what else can you do while traveling in the freezing cold, at least ankle-deep snow, with a low chance of survival than to think back and reminisce about the past. Trying to get your mind off of the freezing cold and the distance you’re traveling. As well as remembering the events that got you there and the people in your life. It certainly doesn’t help that this is made even worse with the extremely low temperature, how exhausted he gets, and the radiation (also severe hypothermia can include hallucinations, which Peter definitely hits). To wrap this up, the structure was put together really well, makes sense as you’re playing through, and it gets you to want to see what happens next. Not to mention that there are some particular clever moments sprinkled in.
However, the ending is one aspect that I’m not entirely sure whether I like it or not. It’s really one of those “wait, what?” in a sense that it messes with you, but there are also some aspects of it that will definitely not land for some. All I’ll say is that it involves the choices you made and that this does have an open ending.
I did run into some hiccups with the audio. There were some scenes with Peter’s Professor that had a weird echo-y effect which I assume wasn’t intended and I did have a scene after reloading where the voice audio was completely gone after and restarting was the only solution. I do also wish the models and some more tweaks put in, but this may be partly due to it releasing on Apple Arcade first.
South of the Circle is going to be a game you will either be fully invested and like or not at all connecting with it and have no urge to play. Even if the art style is to your liking, your enjoyment is going to depend on what you look for in games like this and when picking this up. If you’re looking for a game with more gameplay than story and choices that have more of an impact, you’ll be disappointed. However, if you’re going in mainly for the story and don’t mind how much actual gameplay there is as long as the story is actually worth going through, well you’re in for a ride.
Personally, I went in mainly because of the premise and I was absolutely hooked. The emotional choices was weird, but I wanted to see if Peter and Floyd ended up surviving and I enjoyed the flashback scenes Peter has as well as his relationship with Clara. So if you don’t mind that this is mainly a story than a game, as well as you find the premise interesting, pick this up and get ready for the ride. You may not want to stop until you reach the end.