Subsurface Circular review for Nintendo Switch, PC

Platform: Nintendo Switch
Also On: PC
Publisher: Mike Bithell
Developer: Mike Bithell
Medium: Digital
Players: 1
Online: No
ESRB: E10+

It’s rare for me to find a game where the writing really blows me away (largely, presumably, because games tend to be a visual medium). It’s even rarer still for me to be so amazed by a game’s writing that, years later, I’m able to look back on it with fondness. But that’s the case for me with Thomas Was Alone. I played it (and raved about it) a little over five years ago, and it still stands out as one of my all-time favourites — in large part because the writing (and accompanying narration) was just so exceptional.

It was so exceptional, in fact, that it led me to not only have insanely high hopes for Volume, the second game from Thomas Was Alone’s creator, Mike Bithell, but also to be instantly interested in Subsurface Circular, Bithell’s latest game for the Switch. And where Volume left me feeling a little letdown, I’m very pleased to report that Subsurface Circular lives up to the high standards Bithell set with his debut.

It does so because the game finds Bithell playing to his strengths: writing. See, Subsurface Circular is essentially a text-based adventure. There’s a visual element, but it’s nothing special. The gameplay literally just consists of robots getting on and off a subway and talking with each other. The robots look absolutely incredible, mind you, but still, it’s not the most visually interesting game.

This means that Subsurface Circular lives and dies by its writing. If the story or the conversations were anything less than fascinating, the game would have failed. That it doesn’t is a testament to how great Bithell is at telling a story.

And what is that story? Without giving away too much of Subsurface Circular’s fantastic mystery, I can tell you that you’re controlling a robot detective investigating another robot’s disappearance, which he (it?) discovered in the course of making casual conversation with another subway passenger (also a robot). From that initial conversation, you uncover more and more of the story in bits and pieces from subsequent passengers, while at the same time learning all about the world above you. Despite the action never leaving a single subway car, the world is so richly-imagined, and the story so compelling, it’s impossible not to get drawn in.

It helps, of course, that the whole thing can be solved in a single sitting. If you’re looking for a game that will occupy your time for days on end, this isn’t it — you’ll be able to figure out its mystery in around an hour. It’s also not the kind of game that you can go back to again and again — it is, after all, a mystery, and the story isn’t going to change in subsequent playthroughs (apart, that is, from the ending, but even that’s determined by the player at the very end of the game).

As someone who’ll take a concentrated dose of exceptional storytelling over an endless slog of repetitive tasks and quests, I can’t say that the brevity or the lack of replayability bothers me all that much. All I really want is to hear/read an incredible story — well, that, and a genuinely great follow-up to Thomas Was Alone. Luckily, Subsurface Circular delivers on both.

Mike Bithell provided us with a Subsurface Circular Nintendo Switch code for review purposes.

Grade: A+