Despite the great advances made in game making technology, many developers these days opt to return to the basics. Last year, The Witness became a vibrant and beautiful critical darling despite a story with little to no spoken dialogue and gameplay solely devoted to clever line puzzle variations. This year, we have Circles from Westerado: Double Barreled team member Jeroen Wimmers, and its concept is even simpler. The only mechanics here are based around circles. Pun intended.
Circles is a puzzle game at heart that shares a lot in common with the flash puzzlers you secretly played in middle school computer classes. Levels come in themed chunks which introduce new obstacles or combine those you've seen before, but the basic goal is almost always the same. Namely, you have to move your circle to the gray circle without touching the rims of any other circles. Each of these "chunks" only contains a handful of levels before moving you on to the next limitation, but Wimmers does a marvelous job both in introducing new concepts and getting decent mileage out of them before they're dropped. Some circles appear or disappear based on the direction you move. Others vanish when you move fast while their counterparts shrink the slower you go. Without any tutorials, Circles manages to communicate all of its information clearly, because all the necessary knowledge is imparted through the gameplay itself.
All of the action in the game is accomplished by mouse movement. Some optional menu navigation requires left clicking, but all of the execution comes from motion. That may imply that Circles is reliant on quick, twitchy reflexes, but aside from a few late-game levels, you can play as slowly and methodically as you like. However, I do recommend using a physical mouse versus a trackpad for a better range of flexibility.
Critiquing the visual style of a game with "circles" as its only design philosophy is a little tricky, but I found it very consistent and appealing. The colors for the circles, backgrounds, and overlaps between the circles make strong contrasts against each other. The UI conveys a level select, multiple game modes, and even window resize options still without any text, and that's an impressive feat on its own.
One of my favorite parts of Circles was the sound design. It features an ambient soundtrack and dynamic percussion that reacts to your actions. The beginning and end of levels is accompanied by satisfying cymbals and hi-hat hits while bonking on an enemy circle comes with a dejected thud sound. Soft jazz plays behind most of the levels, so the sheer act of playing is like composing a sort of freeform music piece. It's quite relaxing.
Without any words, plot, or characters, there is no story to speak of in Circles. It's more of an experimental arcade game in that sense. This is only compounded by the four extra game modes that recreate every level with new restrictions: one where all the levels rotate as you move, one where you must constantly move, one where you must reach the goal in the shortest possible distance, and one where all the axes of motion are reversed. The extra game modes are neat, but as far as I could tell all the levels really were repeats intended to stretch out what is basically a sixty minute game.
And that's the kicker. Circles is great. It feels smooth, and it's a blast to play. However, when the only things incentivizing you to continue past the natural ending are Steam Achievements, it feels a bit shallow. Personally, I can see myself returning to Circles every now and again for quick burst play or to go for faster times, but without any sort of in-game time tracker, even that is uncertain. Regardless, it is a fun and interesting little gem well worth an afternoon if you have the time for it.
Circles was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.
- Responsive Mouse Controls
- Dynamic Jazz Soundtrack
- Coherent Visual Design
- An Hour Long Campaign
- Optional Modes Repeat Earlier Levels