South of the Circle is a light romp through both the Antarctic and the United Kingdom in the 1960s that tackles a number of different topics from the Cold War to love as it explores the lives of its two main protagonists, Peter and Clara. The game packs a surprising amount of depth into its short, but sweet experience with a tale that’ll linger with you long after the credits roll.
1960s academic love story
The story is the core focus of South of the Circle, with the game being something of a light interactive narrative. You can complete the game in as little as 4 to 5 hours, with most of those hours spent watching and interacting with cutscenes.
The story follows Peter, a mild-mannered climatologist at Cambridge, and his attempt to write a groundbreaking research paper on weather patterns. Peter isn’t as far along as he’d like to be, both with his lectures which few attend and even fewer engage with, and with his paper amidst an increasing pressure being put on him to complete it.
During his time at Cambridge, Peter meets Clara, another academic and his polar opposite in almost every way. She gives successful lectures, she’s completed her own research paper, she finds time to join political protests, and she even offers to help Peter complete his own paper.
While playing the game, I found myself more naturally interested in Clara than I did Peter, especially in regards to her backstory trying to establish a place for herself at Cambridge in the 1960s amidst a faculty that respects the work and opinions of men far more than it does women.
Cambridge in the 1960s and the prejudices that come with it isn’t the center focus of the story, though. Rather, the story is a blend between Peter and Clara’s emerging love for one another, the way this complicates certain aspects of their lives, Peter’s struggle with his research paper, the implications of that paper once it’s complete, and a general vibe of Cold War paranoia. It’s an intriguing story, and one that’s easy to follow. While I do wish the game explored more of the topics it presents in more depth, it nevertheless knocks it out of the park in delivering a story that’ll hold you firmly in its grasp for the duration of the experience.
Sit back, watch, enjoy
It’s hard to comment on South of the Circle’s gameplay as there isn’t much to discuss. The game consists of the player choosing between certain emotional responses represented by bubbles over the character’s head. Some of these include things like being calm, or “being a man” and taking charge.
If you ignore these bubbles, the game will take the liberty of initiating them regardless. For example, if there’s a situation where only one bubble pops up and you don’t like that option, preferring silence instead, the game will proceed as if you selected the response anyway.
The responses don’t feel critically important as the story plods along regardless. Outside of this, the gameplay is extremely linear. When you’re driving in a cutscene, the game does a lot of the legwork for you. When you’re traveling through the snow to an outpost, the game cuts in several times with memory flashbacks.
After you come back from these, you’re moved closer to the location you were aiming for which reduces the amount of interaction you’re expected to provide. Despite the chilly location Peter finds himself stranded at, there aren’t survival elements to keep track of like keeping warm or fending off hunger.
There also isn’t much in the way of puzzle solving or required exploration, with important items like car keys being automatically picked up by Peter after a cutscene, no real player interaction required. There are some items to explore and find and interact with, and some brief snippets of action such as partaking in a carnival shooting game, but not as many as I expected there’d be.
The dialogue options are the main way you’ll interact with South of the Circle, and these options do occasionally impact certain outcomes. For example, when you have to choose between attending a protest that’s important to Clara, or passing on the idea.
The game shows you when you’ve made a major choice after the fact with an icon popping up at the top of the screen alongside other major choices you’ve made. As a whole, South of the Circle is very much a “sit and watch” experience with brief interaction opportunities sprinkled throughout the narrative. As much as I enjoyed the story and experience as a whole, I did at times find myself wishing for more to do.
Let us go then, you and I…
The visual aesthetic of the game is nothing short of lovely with soft colors and textures and a focus on key focal points rather than creating massive scenes with superfluous details. A good example of this is a cutscene with Peter’s childhood bedroom.
Most of the room is kept dark, though the objects you can interact with like toy soldiers or a hanging model plane are all illuminated, beckoning you towards them. The voice acting, particularly for Peter and Clara, is superb and really helps give the game a cinematic feel. Adding to this is a pleasant accompanying soundtrack and smart sound design.
South of the Circle is clean and polished, and I didn’t experience any issues bug or glitch wise. It was a smooth run from start to finish, and one that I’ll likely want to experience all over again by watching other people play it and seeing their reactions to it. It’s just that pretty of a game, and one that has fantastic pacing in how it frequently shifts between locations. None of the scenes in the game overstay their welcome.
A must-watch experience
South of the Circle serves as a fantastic example of a game that’s more of an interactive film or story, and there’s a lot of potential in this area for other developers to follow suit given how well the game unravels its narrative.
I really enjoyed the Lost-esque flashbacks that Peter has throughout the game, and how beautifully the game transitions between them. I also loved how natural the romance between Peter and Clara felt in developing slowly, over time, and how well the two work together. If you’re looking for a stellar story experience, South of the Circle has it in spades.
This review is based on a digital PC (Steam) copy provided by the publisher. South of the Circle releases on PC (Steam, GOG), Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, and PS5 on August 3, 2022.