South of the Circle Review: Cold and Daring
There’s a popular mantra repeated by Mt. Everest climbers: summitting is optional, return is mandatory. The bitter cold, extreme altitude, and general exhaustion can easily overwhelm any hopeful summiteers, who — if they’re too eager — can quickly make a grave for themselves on top of the world. But those with the willpower, mental fortitude, and strength to keep going can make it there and back again safely, overcoming all the odds in this frozen death zone. Only one place matches the Earth’s tallest mountain in its allure, danger, and beauty: the South Pole.
It’s this white hellscape that South of the Circle explores with its stunning art direction and scintillating storytelling. Developed by BAFTA winners State of Play and published by 11 Bit Studios (Frostpunk), South of the Circle depicts a man’s fateful journey to the Earth’s most southern point as he battles the elements and the odds while coming to terms with his past. Set in the 1960s Cold War era, South of the Circle’s unique setting and cinematic shots tease a promising experience, but does it deliver? Only one way to find out!
South of the Circle has players taking the role of Peter, a Cambridge graduate student, who finds himself in extreme danger when his plane has crash landed in Antarctica. With his copilot injured and nary a soul in sight, Peter must bravely sojourn through the wind and snow, following only a blinking red dot that glimmers hopefully against the blinding whiteness. Along the way, Peter will have flashbacks to his past, meeting his love Clara, fighting for his work to be recognized, and other key moments in his life that led him to this very moment. Intertwined with these memories is the bitter cold juxtaposition of the present and his struggle to survive; how he handles these adrenaline-pumping moments either makes or breaks his future.
Controls are extremely simple in South of the Circle. For the most point, players will be pressing between 1 – 3 buttons to choose between dialogue options — err, dialogue emotions, I guess I should say, as a response will be labeled with various emotions to convey different moods, such as trepidation or confidence. Striking up your first conversation with Clara can be self-assured and cheerful, or it can be nervous and uncertain. The voice-acting is strong and varied, delivering these responses in a believable and entertaining manner.
At other times, players will need to lead Peter from point A to point B, through deep snow, beautiful mountain landscapes, or seaside villas. This exploration is pretty light, as it’s mostly to just get to the next bit of story instead of, say, collect items or the like. An extremely cinematic experience, South of the Circle keeps camera angles following Peter tight and controlled, yet fluid enough to keep players feeling that all-important sense of progression. In truth, South of the Circle is more like a playable movie than anything!
It’s this fact that players may find frustration with while playing South of the Circle — it truly is like playing a movie. The choices, while interesting and varied, don’t actually matter, and the game will automatically make choices for you if you do nothing. Sure, there are different dialogue options to hear, but it all ends the same so there’s no real reason to play multiple times which is a bit of a let down. It’s less an adventure game through the South Pole and more a scintillating movie through space and time. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is something to keep in mind before playing. Set your expectations accordingly!
South of the Circle definitely looks and feels like it was made by a BAFTA-winning team, which means that players should know they’re walking into an artistic endeavor instead of an action-packed adventure. Sure, there’s action, and there’s adventure, but it’s more of a passive movie than an active experience. As long as you set your expectations accordingly, South of the Circle will thrill (and chill!) anyone looking for a unique setting and exciting story.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: Apple Arcade, PC, XBox One, XBox Series X|S, PS4, PS5, Switch (reviewed); Publisher: 11 Bit Studios; Developer: State of Play; Players: 1; Released: August 3, 2022; MSRP: $12.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a digital copy of South of the Circle provided by the publisher.