Capsule Review: Subsurface Circular

A conversational mystery game in which you play a detective robot interviewing other robots to find the truth behind recent robot disappearances. Ride the eponymous subway line and talk to the other passengers who get on and off, learning what they know and sometimes solving small puzzles to get their cooperation or help them out.

The game is short (just over an hour and a half) and fairly simple, with interaction mostly limited to dialog choices. Some depth is added by a “focus point” system in which interesting topics mentioned by other robots become available as selectable topics to ask any robot about. Puzzles add some variety as well, though some are much more interesting and better-integrated than others. Regardless, a robust hint system guarantees you won’t get stuck and allows you to more or less skip at least some of the puzzles (I only used it on what I considered the worst offender, a completely arbitrary logic/math puzzle that came out of nowhere).

The game’s atmosphere and character-driven worldbuilding are its greatest strengths. While there’s a lot of reading, the visuals and sound add a surprising amount to the game’s atmosphere and tone. The robots look amazing and have wholly believable animations, lending them weight as memorable characters despite not having faces. The environment of the subway car grounds the story in a surreal way, with the player character unable to leave their seat. Both free and on rails, traveling and motionless, they are trapped in an endless loop while other robots come and go. I found this made the player character very easy to identify with and I was eager to meet and talk to new robots and get new perspectives on the outside world I could not visit myself.

Some characters and some aspects of the world and story don’t make a lot of sense, unfortunately. Like the puzzles, they vary a bit in how interesting and well-integrated they are. I’m going to be thinking about some of those robots for a while, but others were annoying or forgettable. While the story explores economic and social ramifications of increased automation, it does so in a fairly shallow way that is unlikely to teach you anything or provoke new questions in your mind unless you are totally new to this topic.

Whether you can enjoy Subsurface Circular will come down to how much you like reading and whether the atmosphere works for you. Despite a few imperfections in the puzzles and story, I found it a compelling world to occupy for ninety minutes or so and it’s been sticking with me since then.

I Stopped Playing When: I finished the game. I started a second playthrough with developer commentary (an option unlocked after finishing the game once) but found it a bit high-friction to stick with. It adds another robot to the subway car to whom you can speak at any time, with several questions available about the game’s art, design, and audio. You can also bring up any of your available focus point topics to ask about them. While some of the provided insights are interesting and this is a cool idea, in practice it means you have to play the entire very-linear game again already knowing all the reveals and puzzle solutions - except it’s even slower because you have to periodically interrupt your conversation and talk to the developer robot to make sure you ask about each focus point before you lose it. A few chapters in, I screwed this up and lost the opportunity to ask about a particular focus point, which broke my inertia and made me reevaluate whether this was worth my time - and I decided it wasn’t and put the game down. I wish the commentary had been handled differently, such as by just making all focus points available when speaking to the developer bot.

Docprof's Rating:

Three Stars: Good. I liked the game enough to finish it (or just play it a bunch, for games that don't end). I recommend it to most genre fans.

You can get it or learn more here.