Mike Bithell, the creator of Thomas Was Alone and Volume, is at it again with his latest work just released for Nintendo Switch. However, does this indie short deserve the same attention as Thomas?
In Subsurface Circular, you play as a detective robot (a Tek) that sits in a subway cart and talks to the various robot passengers as they enter and exit. There are no humans to be found although the many conversations that you'll have help paint the picture of a world above ground that does have human life. In the world of Subsurface Circular, robots are commonplace and they've evolved to the point of having their own personalities that correspond to their very specific job types. These vary from nanny to sports drink advertiser to "lover" Tek. Anyway, as a detective, you meet a mysterious character on the subway at the beginning of the story that tells you about how their Tek friend has gone missing. Naturally, you take the case thus also choosing to go against the orders of management.
In order to solve the case of the missing Teks, you carry on lengthy conversations with the fellow Tek commuters on the train. Unfortunately, this is about as far as the gameplay goes. You never leave the train and you don't even so much as stand up throughout the entire experience. The conversations themselves are entertaining and they slowly paint the picture of the world that you don't actually get to see. A strong imagination is paramount in order to get anything out of Subsurface Circular; just like a book.
Apparently, the production of Teks has gone full steam ahead which triggers discussions about the rights of robots. You'll find yourself asking fellow Teks if they have noticed anyone acting strangely and if they expect humans or robots are to blame for the disappearances. As the story progresses, you get word of a strange character known as the Red Tek that is believed to be involved and you'll start to put together the pieces in order to reach the climax of the plot which is only a couple of hours in. I was very disappointed in the climax itself because no matter which decision you make at the end, the credits just roll and there are no repercussions. I don't want to give much more away as the story is an entertaining read but if you read on, you'll see why I can't vouch for the fact that it's necessary to experience it on a game console instead of it just being a very short book.
The gameplay is almost non-existent. Some may say that it's a detective crime-solving type of game but it doesn't do enough to qualify for this. The vast majority of the experience has you selecting a response to a comment from a passenger which really doesn't change anything about the story progression other than give you a different immediate response in return.
There are a few puzzles that require a small amount of thinking but I didn't get lost at any moment and knew exactly what to do to proceed without looking anything up so there's no challenge to be found at all. At one point, there was a logic puzzle where a Tek described various other Teks in a roundabout way and you had to put it together to figure out a certain Tek's profession, colour, and height. It felt a little forced like something from a Professor Layton game. In another "puzzle", you have to provoke certain emotions from an emotional support bot in order to change how its master bot feels so that it would open up and answer your investigative questions in the right manner. The rest of the puzzles basically have you talking to various Teks in your vicinity in order to unlock information to use with another one. It's pretty simple stuff and thankfully helps to break up the reading whenever it can.
Even though the gameplay itself is extremely lacking, the presentation is top-notch. It's obvious that a painstaking amount of detail was put into what you get to see in Subsurface Circular. When the train stops at a station, some bots leave and others enter and their animation is what I would expect from a robot that has evolved to exhibiting human behaviour. The interface is sharp and to the point while not obscuring the screen and also managing to blend in. The sound effects are great at bringing the subway cart to life. Whenever the train stops and a new chapter starts, a curious short tune with bell chimes plays. Everything you interact with in the menu has its own sound effect to it as well which helps to further immerse you into the experience. The fact that you only get to sit on a subway car for the whole thing is very disappointing but what's here is pretty great to look at.
Subsurface Circular does a good job with its graphics, sound, and storytelling. However, the brevity and lack of gameplay make it tough to recommend. It's clear that the developer is capable of something great but they stopped way too short to provide a meaningful and memorable experience. Hopefully, Subsurface Circular becomes just a preview to what will be a fully fleshed out game.
- + Interesting plot that evolves at a good pace
- + Stellar graphics and sound
- - Minimal gameplay that features only a few puzzles and they're super-easy, too
- - Linear story with a disappointing ending
- - Very short / only one location