Subsurface Circular Review: The Robot Text Adventure I Need & Deserve

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A scene from Subsurface Circular. (c) Bithell Games

Subsurface Circular is a charming and thoughtful text-based adventure from Bithell Games, the award-winning team behind Thomas Was Alone and Volume.

You play as a Tek, a robot riding on the Subsurface Circular train loop underground. You’re a detective who takes on the task of investigating rumored Tek disappearances, but you’re geo-locked: you’re so smart, your wary human handlers made the decision to keep you from leaving the train. You can only interrogate your fellow Tek commuters if you’re going to get to the bottom of these disappearances.

The Teks riding the train are a fun and varied bunch from all walks of Tek life: manufacturing bots, a bored librarian bot, a nanny bot, even a priest bot. Through your conversations with your fellow Teks, you learn about life aboveground, including humans’ mixed reactions to the sentient AI they created. The Teks all have different personalities based not only on their designation, but on their communication filters, their programmed intelligence levels and yes, personalities. As one Tek says, they have souls and a spark of life.

The game’s user interface is sleek and pleasing. When you move the mouse around, it looks like you’re moving the camera around slightly. The Teks all have different designs, though all follow the boxy and faceless model for reasons explained in-game. You can tell what each Tek’s designation is before you even initiate a private conversation, because of course you can.

The train itself looks and feels like a real commuter train, and one or two questions even have you peek at the subway map, which features tantalizingly named, Tek-themed stops like “Architect’s Leap,” “Finite Instance” and “Core Declaration.” I love these bits of flavor and the insight they give into the world of Subsurface Circular.

There’s a handful of riddles and simple text puzzles, but the answer is always clear. Even if you struggle, a “guided deduction” mode points you to the clue you need to move forward. A feature called “Focus Points” allows you to use key phrases unlocked during conversations to get more information when talking to other Teks.

“Focus Points” are more or less the game’s only mechanic. I’m not sure how much impact the dialogue options even have, as it’s clear that Subsurface Circular is telling a singular story pushing forward to one of two endings which you choose between at the very last moment. Aside from unlocking a few achievements, exploring the dialogue options serves only to delight your own need to roleplay a character and doesn’t affect how the Teks react to you too much, lock you out of necessary conversations or change the course of the game. This doesn’t bother me too much, as putting these options in would detract from Subsurface Circular ’s tight narrative and sharp focus.  

Subsurface Circular builds to a surprising, but not entirely unexpected climax, though the real twists are in a few small details along the way. I found the ending intriguing and impactful and would love a sequel that links to the decisions made in this one by exploring its consequences. The short text adventure format clearly works for Subsurface Circular , putting attention on the writer’s punchy sense of humor (I loved the Hamilton nod) and highlighting their mastery of pacing and story beats.

I also appreciate Subsurface Circular ’s brevity, because it allows a great deal of polish. My playthrough took a little over two hours, which is a great value for my time when the game is priced at $5.99. That’s a lot less time than it takes me to read a chunky fantasy novel while delivering a lot more substance than microtransactions in some awful F2P mobile game. Hell, it’s less than a movie ticket and I don’t have to leave my house, overpay for popcorn or get on the train.

If you’re looking for a casual, text-based indie game that will whet your appetite for more, Subsurface Circular is available on Steam for $5.99 here. Subsurface Circular is also available on the Apple Store for iPad running iOS 11 or later. After completing a playthrough, you can unlock the BithellBot, “an interactive take on a developer’s commentary,” as well as explore a special art gallery.

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