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Games S.M.A.R.T.

The S.M.A.R.T. on: Subsurface Circular

Developers: Bithell Games

Price: 6.99 euros

Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch

Review console: PC

A bit about the game:

Subsurface Circular takes place in the future where robot-like machines, known as Tek, are manufactured to deal with different tasks for their human masters or ‘management’ as they are referred to in game. The playable character is a detective Tek, and they are approached on the subway train they are assigned to by another Tek with a mysterious case. The game features a text-based narrative with a lot of depth, charm and mystery, alongside some light-puzzle solving and an interesting ‘focal points’ system where conversations will unlock points on which the player can focus and learn more about the story; mostly though, it’s a game about solving cases as a detective robot in a subway commute by choosing what you say carefully and following the intriguing narrative.

 

Gameplay: 7/10

Points for:

  • Interesting take on text-based adventure games, with cases and puzzles solved mostly through conversations with other robots.
  • Puzzle design is also neat with some conversation feeling like quests, while others feel like conversations which you gain information by winning a battle of wits.
  • Short game time means that although the interactivity is fairly one-note you don’t really tire of it.
  • ‘Focal point’ system is a clever way to show the progression of a conversation as well as direct and limit the actions of the player without making things feel too mechanical or restrictive.
  • Also, for me it will always be a positive to see developers have faith in their products and not add arbitrary and anxiety-inducing time meters on every choice. This way I never felt cheated by making a rush decision, and I was always able to keep up with the story and consider my options.
  • Bithellbot is a pretty neat option to have for the second playthrough and gives a good enough reason to go through the game again.

Points against:

  • I understand why a small indie title of this nature cannot have variety in gameplay and level design, but it doesn’t make their absence any less impactful.
  • Story and writing set aside, the gameplay on its own is pretty disinteresting besides a few notable puzzles.

 

Visuals& Technical Performance: 6/10

Points for:

  • For the price of the product, the size of the team and its duration, Subsurface Circular is an okay-looking game that nails the design of the robots that appear, as well as the interior of the train and the few UI elements such as the conversation boxes, the text and the map.
  • No bugs, crashes or any performance issues to speak of.

Points against:

  • Several other indie games have tackled the visual aesthetic problem by delivering unique art styles that are much more memorable. Whether its pixel art or hand-drawn art, several other indie developers with similar restrictions have found better and more distinct solutions for the visuals, which Subsurface Circular does not have.

 

Sound& Music: 5/10

Points for:

  • Due to the game set in one place for its entirety, there isn’t much in the sound design department, however what was there blended in the background which is what I want from such games;
  • There is music in the game and some tracks are enjoyable, but overall the music sticks to the background and rarely announces itself.

Points against:

  • The music is a bit of a disappointment for me-even the few tracks that are enjoyable, could have been better and enhance the experience rather than just be a small and inconsequential part of it.
  • Also, as a side note, there is no voice over work in the game, however I didn’t find myself wishing for it due to the length of the game.

 

Story: 10/10

Points for:

  • Interesting premise that is executed perfectly to deliver a memorable experience.
  • Engaging mystery that is seen through some excellent character work and writing.
  • Even though the overall concept can be easily classed as a ‘cliché’, the story feels distinct and impactful enough; surprisingly funny and self-aware.
  • Poignant symbolism that balances the very fine line between artistically, and intellectually, stimulating and pretentious or preachy.
  • Pacing is immaculate as no second or line of text or puzzle is wasted.
  • A satisfying and twisting story that surprises you and keeps you on your toes.

Points against:

  • While the game sets up its rules and sticks with them for the most part, it finds difficulty in keeping the suspension of disbelief on its side. It is especially difficult to make a game that encourages you to think and contemplate, let alone one that takes place in a sci-fi premise with one indoor setting and while the game succeeds for the most part, there were cases where I was taken out of the experience because the game couldn’t keep my suspension of disbelief.

 

Overall: 7/10

Subsurface Circular is a great experiment that resulted in a great game, with some flaws relating to how it was made. However, as a closing remark, I feel the need to completely ignore those flaws; the game stuck with me for quite a while after it ended and my experience with it was great and completely worth it. Hopefully similar experiments will not have those same flaws, and we get to see the same strong narrative, writing and interactive story-telling on display in Subsurface Circular.

 

As always the G.R.IN.D. is recommended for those who want a more in-depth analysis. You can find it by clicking here.

 

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