Developer: Mike Bithell Games (Switch port by Ant Workshop)
Publisher: Mike Bithell Games
Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch
Release date: March 1, 2018
In a future where humans have turned to the development of robots to handle their workforce, Subsurface Circular takes places entirely aboard the titular subway system below the surface. Teks, as the robots are called, are the only users of the railway — one of which is you, a detective investigating a string of Tek disappearances.
Subsurface Circular is described by developer Mike Bithell as a “short,” a brief narrative adventure game that is meant to respect the player’s time and intelligence and is best experienced in a single session.
The entirety of the two-hour narrative is spent conversing with fellow Teks as they board and depart the railway system, in order to further your investigation. Each Tek has their own job assigned by the human “management” above, from priests and fabricators to childcare and psychiatry, and you’ll discuss their field of employment and thoughts on the recent disappearances accordingly.
There are no voice-overs, just plenty of dialogue trees to read and reply to. You can choose from a variety of reply options, ranging from hard-boiled detective to downright comedic, but the narrative is linear and there is absolutely no wrong way to respond. I enjoyed seeing how each Tek responded to different reply types, but with the narrative always playing out the same way (aside from a major decision near the end) I wasn’t drawn back for a second playthrough when the credits rolled.
The most interesting aspect of Subsurface Circular lies in its word puzzles, which requires the player to interact with each of the passenger Teks in order to obtain key “focus points.” These act as new topics of conversation. Some Teks may provide very little insight on the first pass, but discovering a new topic may get them to open up a little more on the next go (which is required to progress the story). One passenger, in particular, even recited a story and, to make sure I was listening, began to quiz me on the details. Another instance required me to act as a priest in order to listen to a soldier’s confession. To do so, I had to pass the Priest’s aforementioned story quiz and learn how to properly recite specific questions in the correct order. Needless to say, I made heavy use of the Switch’s screenshot function.
I always enjoyed interrogating new passengers, obtaining new focus points, and figuring out when and who to use them on. It took a tried-and-true adventure game mechanic and replaced item collection and inventory management with an expanded dialogue tree, which I thought was clever and appropriate for a game entirely focused on storytelling. I also appreciate that the game makes full use of the Switch’s portability and features full touch controls while in handheld mode. Navigating dialogue trees with a controller works just fine, of course, but I enjoyed it a bit more when scrolling and tapping with my finger as if I were replying to messages on a tablet.
Although brief, Subsurface Circular provides a well-written narrative full of twists and modern-day parallels, and the Tek passengers aboard it exude Mike Bithell’s trademark charm (a major component in my love for Thomas Was Alone and Volume). I was intrigued throughout the two-hour experience and always looked forward to navigating the next dialogue puzzle, but I’ll admit that I wasn’t too satisfied with either of the game’s endings. I think this was more due to the outcomes being fully explained before the “big decision” instead of playing out afterward. Knowing the consequences before committing took a bit of the wind out of my sails, but didn’t detract from an otherwise stellar sci-fi detective story.
Subsurface Circular is another short, fantastic story-focused title for the Nintendo Switch and one that’s well worth the price of admission. The Nintendo Switch is proving to be the premier destination for smaller indie titles and this has been one of my favorites thus far. If you have a two-hour break in the near future and have an interest in these cool little narrative games, then punch your ticket, find a seat, and start talking.
We do not use a scoring system here at Cheap Boss Attack. Hopefully, you found the above information far more informative than an arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. If you have any questions that weren’t answered in the review, please feel free to sound off down in the comments!
An advanced digital copy of the game was provided for the purpose of this review.