South of the Circle

The utmost blessing in life is when you found someone compatible with you, a person with whom you share a great level of chemistry. A good partner may not necessarily be exactly the same as you but when you are in their company, you feel heaven in the world.

But in life, not everything is smooth and easy. Life events change based on the choices you make. At times, you have to choose between two things that are your highest priorities. You decide carefully, trying to make everyone happy around you. You try to lean on the best of your understanding, but despite all your efforts, some things are destined to remain forever out of reach. You are then left with no choice but to live and survive.

This paradigm can be found in many video games already, especially in the interactive narrative genre. But full marks go to 11 Bit studios for what they’ve done with the genre in South of the Circle.

South of the Circle

I’m a die-hard fan of interactive games like Heavy Rain, Fahrenheit, Life is Strange, and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, so I’m pretty well-versed in narrative-based video games. Even so, I was a little apprehensive about South of the Circle at first. The minimalist, cel-shaded art style isn’t necessarily my cup of tea, and it gave me the impression that the game’s scope would be small or limited.

On the contrary, South of the Circle was far deeper than I expected, opening up to me like a big surprise.

The game revolves around two characters, Peter Hamilton and Clara McKirrick. The player takes control of Peter, who has crash-landed in Antarctica during the Cold War. As he jumps to the ground to find help for his mate Floyd, his past comes rushing into his way with colorful and haunted memories.

In the past, Peter, a Cambridge professor, meets Clara on a train. Neither of them know that this meeting is just the first of many; a journey of companionship is awaiting them. As the player, it’s up to you to determine how Peter’s life moves forward in terms of his career, his interest in Clara, and his commitments in life.

South of the Circle - Dialogue Options

You’ll have simple choices/dialogue symbols to make. A small pop-up appears above the character’s head that could let you choose one of five emotional categories:

  • Confusion/Panic/Concern
  • Honest/Caring/Open
  • Strong/Forthright/Aggressive
  • Interested/Enthusiastic/Curious
  • Shy/Negative/Downcast

The game revolves around these five choices, but these choices open up into their respective dialogues, building the tension that pushes the narrative forward.

The game’s parallel storyline — jumping between past and present (the “present” in this case being the 1960s) — is portrayed in a cinematic way that makes it feel like you are watching a movie full of mixed emotions and thrilling surprises that keep you hooked throughout the experience.

Even though there’s an intriguing story to be found in these memories, the narrative has been presented so beautifully that it makes the player seek what lies ahead of Peter. This is where this game wins a player’s heart.

The game has a simple art style that almost looks hand-painted, which makes it feel like you are walking through a beautiful storybook. It is worth noting here that despite the simplicity of the character models and facial expressions, it still ends up being really impactful.

South of the Circle

Plus, the cinematic multi-layered sequences are handled brilliantly. For example, there’s one part where Peter is about to touch a device in the freezing cold and is electrocuted. As soon as he accidentally touches the wire, the scenery shifts to the past and we see Peter getting his hands burned as he touches hot tea he is making for Clara.

South of Circle does not feature any puzzles, there are no complex levels or set pieces, and Peter is controlled by A.I. mostly, as a large chunk of gameplay simply happens in conversations between Peter and the other characters. Despite the simplicity, the cinematic style of presentation and well-crafted storyline are powerfully compelling.

In any video game, gameplay holds the most responsibility among all features. Simple gameplay, when coupled with a cohesive cinematic storyline, can completely overpower the graphical style, action sequences, and other elements of the game. South of the Circle re-establishes the fact that a great adventure game just needs a good balance between gameplay and narrative. Credit goes to 11 Bit Studios for making this masterpiece.

South of the Circle

Of course, the gameplay is backed by superb voice acting, with Peter voiced by Gwilym Lee (Bohemian Rhapsody) and Clara voiced by Olivia Vinall (The Woman in WhiteWhere Hands Touch, and Queens of Mystery). The script and dialogues are well-aligned with the overall theme of the game, and the thrilling background score is the cherry on the top. There are only a couple of music tracks in the game, but South of the Circle is only about four hours long, so that’s not a problem.

And even though the runtime is short, I think you could get a lot of value out of subsequent replays. Your choices might not make a huge impact on the major sequences, but it’s interesting to explore the consequences of various choices to see how things unfold between Peter and Clara. For example, if you choose to give mostly positive responses and show that you are caring for others, you will care for Clara and listen to and agree with her. In a second playthrough, you can be opposite and see how the narration changes. Then, in the third playthrough, you can go with a mixed bag to see what appears before you.

My only complaint is that I sometimes felt a little helpless in terms of gameplay, especially when I don’t want Peter to be in an uncomfortable position, and I cannot do much to alter some of the pre-written scenarios. I can only engage with the choices the developers have laid out for me, when there are other aspects I would have liked to explore, or other choices I would have liked to make. I know that’s a limitation of the medium, but I can’t help but feel like there were a few places that could have allowed more agency for the player.

South of the Circle

Despite those limitations, though, I want to live forever in these peaceful landscapes, to continue hiking with Clara, to dance in rain and enjoy Peter’s life. However, I have to end where I am destined to end. Such is the nature of good stories.

To get the most out of South of the Circle, I recommend getting comfortable on a sofa, grabbing a cup of coffee or tea, and diming your lights. Grab a controller and enjoy this cozy yet thrilling adventure.

Disclaimer: I was given a review code for South of the Circle on PS4, but the opinions expressed in this article are my own.

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