A little less conversation, a little more action baby…
Visual novels are not traditionally my sort of game. I played Night in the Woods and Life is Strange, but those had much more of an interactive element rather than just telling a story. Then I got my hands on Mike Bithell’s recent release on the Nintendo Switch, having enjoyed his previous work like Volume and Thomas Was Alone. I was excited to delve deep into something that is a bit out of my comfort zone. With that said and done, welcome to Subsurface Circular.
Subsurface Circular is the first title in a series Bithell is calling “Bithell Shorts”, aiming to give you an experience you can finish in one sitting. The game puts you into the role of an android detective, or Tek, as you travel in a subway train in the surrounding “Subsurface Circular” – an area in which other Teks travel in order to get to their designated jobs set by “Management”. Simply put, you are playing a robot slave. In your first interaction on the train, however, you’re given information that other Teks have gone missing and that management are trying to cover it up. So you decide to break your protocol and start to investigate these disappearances independently.
The cast of Teks you meet throughout the adventure are an intriguing bunch and it’s interesting to see how in this world what these androids are built for. From detectives like yourself to nannies, psychiatrists, priests and the strange “listener” who happens to sit next to you for the majority of this ride. The conversations are a puzzle in themselves but that’s where I had the most problems with the game. Especially since they take centre stage, I wish the hints were more clear as to how I am able to complete the objective, maybe including a directive that talking to a certain android would allow me to better gather information on the case.
Throughout your train ride, you ask the passengers a variety of questions to help progress the investigation. In some cases you need to talk to all of the androids and then backtrack to the first of the three you talked to in order to move forward. I like this concept as it allows players not to just rush and only talk to the one they need but rather go through all of the dialogue trees and get to experience all of the game. You are also given focus words, which pertain to asking the android questions directly related to the case.
For example, one of the main questions you will be asking is, of course, about the disappearances. Each of the androids will react to it differently, stating either no knowledge about said event or how they themselves have been affected and happy they are that someone is finally looking into these occurrences. Some focus words are also only available momentarily as once that group have gotten off the train you no longer have a use for it in some cases.
All in all the interaction you have with the cast of androids is great while still having some minor flaws. Juggling three conversations one after the other confused me a bit, especially when I had four main objectives to discover and solve. Nonetheless, Bithell and his team have done a great job at creating some interesting and memorable characters.
Subsurface Circular also has an interesting art style. You’re limited to seeing inside of the train, your fellow passengers – and some parts of the stations, if you go into the concept art gallery. I would have loved to have seen an ending set piece in which the train opens the gates to the city you work underneath, revealing a futuristic Blade Runner-esque city. I understand that Subsurface Circular is supposed to be a short and consumable experience and this doesn’t take anything away from the game, but it would have been a cool thing to see.
The majority of my Spotify playlists consist of game soundtracks, and after spamming the Furi soundtrack for months on end, I’ve finally found a replacement. The composer Dan Le Sac brings a great futuristic vibe with tension, grit and calmness in certain scenes. Most soundtracks solely try to convey the environment or the experience the player character is going through but Subsurface Circular does both. My commutes have just gotten a lot better.
I haven’t said much about the story besides for very basic plot points and that is for good reason – spoiling it would be a tragedy. Yet again Bithell and his team have shown how unique games can be in terms of storytelling, connecting with characters you otherwise wouldn’t and showcasing how indies are taking centre stage in moving the medium forward. I’m looking forward to more of the “Bithell Shorts” coming soon and I hope you are too.