South of the Circle is a game that captures its moments perfectly. Whether that’s stumbling through a blizzard, guided only by flashing red lights off in the distance, arms wrapped tight around your chest to keep out the frozen southern winds, or sitting awkwardly in a government office, reading between the lines of each question that’s being put to you.
This is a nuanced, deeply engaging narrative adventure. It’s emotional in all the right ways, while still weaving a tale of love and loss, plane crashes, and abandoned research bases that’s going to leave you dangling precariously on the edge of your seat.
The game tells two stories. In one, main character Peter is stranded in the Antarctic wastes, trying to find someone to help after a plane crash that left his grumpy Australian pilot with a broken leg. The other is a love story, set before Peter’s journey south, and sees him wooing Clara, a fellow lecturer at Cambridge University.
Set against the backdrop of the cold war, the game weaves politics, feminism, and protest seamlessly into its narrative. Along the way you’ll make choices, using a smart symbol system that tells you the general gist of what you’re about to say. There are bigger decisions to make as well, that change the story in subtle ways.
Nothing in South of the Circle ever feels forced, whether you’re hiking through the Scottish Highlands to launch atmospheric balloons, or discovering a funfair at the top of a mountain as the cold sets in and past and present begin to blur. There’s a maturity to everything here, and an overwhelming drive to see what’s going to happen next.
The acting is some of the best you’re ever likely to see in a video game. Motion capture performances complement the wonderful voice acting, and the gorgeous art style brings life to the tundra, the rainswept streets of Cambridge, and the beguiling crags of northern Scotland.
You’ll finish the experience in an afternoon, but it’ll be an afternoon spent enthralled. South of the Circle feels like a classic movie, brilliantly put together in every department and designed to be consumed in a single sitting.
This is a bright and polished game that showcases how effective interactive entertainment can be in telling stories. While there isn’t a lot to do mechanically – no QTEs or jarring combat, no sudden jumps into traditional genres to try and keep players interested – South of the Circle doesn’t need it.
Beyond all of that though, the simple fact is this is a game that’s going to stay with you long after you’ve finished playing. South of the Circle is a memorable piece of video game storytelling, and a prime example of just how far the medium has come in its few decades of existence.
One section later in the game sees you approaching a stranded snowmobile with a rifle. It’s unbelievably tense, with whipped-up snow obscuring your view, a single bullet, and a deep uncertainty about what you should do. It’s heart-stopping, perfectly handled, and expresses a lot of the game’s themes in a handful of seconds.
A wonderful story, brilliant art, a perfect soundtrack, and fantastic voice acting, to boot – there’s almost nothing to dislike in South of the Circle.
Format: iOS / Mac
Developer: State of Play
Publisher: State of Play
Price: Free (Apple Arcade)
Release: Out now