Subsurface Circular Review — Surprisingly Linear, Unsurprisingly Dynamic
Mike Bithell's Subsurface Circular on Nintendo Switch is unmistakably the definitive edition of the endearing, bite-sized techno adventure game.
There’s always a warm place in my heart for Mike Bithell’s work. His minimalist, story-heavy platformer Thomas Was Alone was one of my first — and still one of my favorite — modern indie games, and Volume may be the only instance of a dedicated stealth game I enjoy. More importantly, Bithell has taken his success and created a platform (alongside other notable developers like Rami Ismail) supporting passion projects, indie development as a whole, and a creative spirit in the industry. With all of that in mind, I didn’t think I was going to enjoy his latest Nintendo Switch port of Subsurface Circular.
Now don’t get me wrong — I’ve had my share of fun with text-based adventure games, albeit in the late-90’s and early-2000’s. The “adventure” genre meta has in that time managed to shift to more visual and gameplay-heavy variations, including the point-and-click adventure, graphic adventures, or (arguably) first-person experience games. And I had naturally assumed that that shift was made for a demonstrable reason; perhaps the flourishing of technology and gameplay design in gaming have made text-based adventures a bit of a lame duck.
Thankfully, none of that is true with Bithell Games’ Subsurface Circular. The game, without little explanation in the environment and world you find yourself in, places you in the chassis of Theta One One — an investigator “Tek” (robot) situated on the titular subway-like Subsurface Circular to solve the odd crimes of other Teks. That is until one big mystery crosses your path: Teks have been slowly disappearing from the Subsurface Circular and no one knows why.
Breaking from your human overlords’ prime directive, you take on this case outside of your jurisdiction by striking up a conversation with passenger Teks along the commute. As the case begins unwinding, you learn of the state of the world, human-Tek unrest, a myth-like rogue Tek that is fomenting insurrection, and a human-based terrorist organization that is looking to separate humanity from Teks. Even more important to the game, however, is the rogue-ish cast of characters you meet along the way — each with different personalities, intelligence levels, and levels of authority to manage their own decisions.
That latter point is where the heart of quality in any text-based adventure game is found: the writing. And Mike Bithell’s usual charm and dry wit come through excellently in Subsurface Circular, often providing a standalone motivation to keep progressing the plot. Even better, the world itself is exciting and dynamic — despite the game being a one-off adventure game, I would love to see more of what the world has to offer. While I doubt the game would have suffered without such a vibrant backdrop, nuggets discoverable throughout conversation provide replayability in this two-hour story.
Yeah, you read that correctly: a two-hour story. However, Bithell Games advertises the shorter length as a benefit to the title, under the notion that it is intended to be a single-sitting experience. Thankfully, the price also reflects the limited playtime at a notably competitive price of $5.99. While there are other indie games that offer more bang for their buck on Nintendo Switch, Subsurface Circular is well worth the $6 entry ticket and is a refreshing yet abbreviated experience without sacrificing quality.
As I mentioned above, the game is mostly a text-based adventure game. Although it takes some detours from other games in the genre — a minimalist 3D-based environment instead of a traditional only-text model — Theta One One is essentially bolted to his seat throughout the game. Subsurface Circular‘s main gameplay will be entirely dialogue-based with a handful of puzzles thrown in. The formula is short and understandable, with no significant disruption to the genre otherwise.
My only qualm with the game is how linear the story is — while you will have conversation options that will lead you down different dialogue options, most everything in the game is leasing down the same path. With Subsurface Circular being as short as it is, I was hoping that there would be some branching paths or missible gameplay options that would affect the story. The game doesn’t suffer from the lack of variety given the strong storytelling, but it does feel like a missed opportunity.
And as a final note, the Nintendo Switch version is quite obviously the definitive version of the game. While everything gameplay and graphic-wise is relatively basic, the HD Rumble support is an obvious improvement for immersion and there is something charming about playing Subsurface Circular on a subway. This should be an easy pickup for a Nintendo Switch owner, regardless if you bought the game already.
Subsurface Circular is the brunch of gaming fare on Nintendo Switch — abbreviated, filling, and definitely worth the price. Anyone who finds some joy in futuristic techno flair will fall in love with this indie darling, and the narrative is short enough that it will leave you wanting more — for better or worse.