South of the Circle is a narrative experience, and it is sure to be a marmite game for players because of it. You really don’t do a lot of playing when guiding protagonist Peter through the frigid Antarctic wasteland that awaits him. Personally, I don’t have an issue with walking simulators, as long as the story grabs me, holds my attention, and proves so engaging that it helps me forget I haven’t wiggled a thumb stick, tapped a button, or mashed a trigger for a good five minutes. Does South of the Circle achieve this?
Released back in 2020 on Apple Arcade, South of the Circle has now been brought to console and PC. The story is an intriguing one. Peter is an academic on a research trip to Antarctica, going there to study cloud formations for a research paper. Unfortunately for him, things don’t go to plan, though that’s fortunate for us, as a game about cloud formation research sounds pretty boring. Anyway, poor Peter’s plane crash lands in the middle of nowhere, forcing our reluctant hero to trek through the snow and ice to find help.
Peter’s walking adventure is only the first strand in a dense narrative weave. As Peter walks his mind also wanders, taking him back to his childhood, his time on campus, and his romantic relationship with love interest Clara. The game skilfully blends these disparate storylines by having scenes and locations visually bleeding into one another.
Take one scene in which Peter desperately wrestles for control of a rowing boat to navigate choppy waters, before suddenly finding himself reduced to a child trying to row under the domineering instruction of his father. Or, whilst trekking across endless snow, Peter comes across a fairground, transporting him back to his first date with Clara. The game uses multiple story threads to avoid the boredom inherent in tediously trekking from one snowy location to another. In fact, South of the Circle is expertly paced, the story effortlessly taking you by the hand and pulling you ever onwards, as only the best page-turning novels can.
Other than the walking, you’ll also choose Peter’s dialogue choices in the social scenarios he finds himself in. Rather than choosing from a selection of sentences, you’ll instead pick from a range of symbols, each representing an emotional response. This method proves surprisingly engaging, getting you to think about how responding with hope, sadness or fortitude might play out in the given context. You’re only given a few seconds to make your decision, giving you the impression that you are having more control over proceedings than you really are. Suffice to say, you are not. There are few to no actual choices to make in this game – really it’s all smoke and mirrors. Other than some slight variation in the available endings, this is a linear journey. It’s Peter’s story after all, not yours.
If you can get on board with that, then you’ll find the story told in South of the Circle to be absolutely compelling. Its Cold War setting is surprisingly timely considering our current global situation but it is its character exploration that truly makes State of Play’s latest release tick. Peter is a deep, nuanced, and entirely fallible character. In short, he’s completely believable. Matters are helped along by a stonking voice-over cast who truly delivers some phenomenal performance, likely the best I’ve ever heard in a video game. The musical score also deserves special mention. Sweeping, majestic, dramatic, sinister, and moving; the music helps underline and reinforce every emotional beat. Ed Critcley and Piotr Musiał have excelled themselves.
Then there are the graphics, where the bold and chunky aesthetic is immediately arresting. The smooth and naturalistic motion captured animation bringing to mind rotoscoped classic Flashback, while the way different scenes transform and blend into one another is genius.
All of that’s not to say that there aren’t any issues. Even for a linear, prescribed journey, there are a ridiculous amount of invisible walls to bump into. The already narrow paths are absolutely tiny and any variation from the predetermined route will see Peter stuck in place and flailing his legs impotently. There are a fair few glitches too; characters inexplicably vibrating, clipping through scenery, or hilariously, forced to hold hands like they have penguin flippers. These issues serve to undermine all the hard work done to ensure the player’s investment in the characters, story, and world. Hopefully, some can be cleared up in a future patch.
Unfortunately, what can’t be cleared up is the ending. Now, I might be alone here, as I know a great many players thought the conclusion absolutely delivered, but I found it to be a real damp-squib of a resolution and an unwarranted twist that wasn’t narratively earnt. I’m all for a sad ending, but the lacklustre and rushed way that South of the Circle wrapped things up just made me feel sad.