Explaining exactly how and what Circles is can be somewhat difficult. That isn’t due to some sort of clever fake out like other clever indie games that made their way onto Steam in recent years. No, Circles is pretty much exactly what you see in the GIF above. In fact, I’ll be avoiding screenshots for the entirety of this review, because a screenshot doesn’t capture what makes Circles work-and I don’t even think GIFs do it proper justice.
What is Circles, then? Pitching itself as a game for the subconscious, Circles is a puzzle solving game in the same vein of titles like last year’s The Witness. However, Circles relies on a dedicated focus on minimalism. Literally everything in Circles is, well, a circle. Each puzzle’s goal is fairly straight forward: take the circle representing the cursor to the matching color circle somewhere else on the screen by simply moving the mouse. The puzzle portion comes into play when the other circles reveal that they have patterns of their own. Some circles will increase in size while others decrease, some will move in the reverse of your circle, some even move independent on the cursor, but the beat of the background music, and more.
The difficulty crops up here, because it is difficult to explain past this point. True to its marketing, Circles relies on a what could be considered subconscious suggestion to to train the player’s mind to find the solution to its puzzles. When I first started playing, I didn’t notice the training my brain was going through for several puzzles, until I started taking more note of the seemingly basic music. What I thought was just meant to be inoffensive background noise to keep engagement, I realized that the music actually had a drum beat that would respond to my movements. Different beats and sounds will enter the musical pattern based on whether or not I was closing in on the solution.
The music isn’t the only suggestive tool used. To keep things engaging, Circles utilizes some color theory tricks. While many puzzles will have very complimentary colors that are easy on the eyes, other puzzle sets use contrasting colors. Now, color theory itself isn’t anything sound, I can personally vouch that many puzzles felt mentally satisfying to complete, not just because of the challenge, but to clear the conflicting colors from the screen. The colors are never offensive to the eyes, thankfully, again, the effect is mental. These color arrangements almost double down on the satisfaction of finishing of the puzzle.
Again, the circles themselves have their own behavior, so puzzles will keep certain behaviors for about 4-5 puzzles to actually create a rhythm, and then will bring those behaviors back alongside new ones from section to section. Surprisingly, there are a significant amount of puzzles for something so minimal. Like you might see in mobile puzzle titles, puzzles are broken down into several level groups. At first, there appears to be four levels, but after making some progress, extra sets of levels began to rear their heads. The extra levels are great as well, because they bring back other past puzzle challenges and remixes them for new experiences.
Technical merits aside, Circles ended up doing something else for me that I don’t think it even expected to do. While I really don’t like reaching too far outside of the context of the game itself for my reviews, I feel like this time it is worthwhile. As I’m sure most of you are aware, things in the “real world” feel less like reality and more like an episode of South Park every day. I surely would never advocate for ignoring the goings on around us, but there is merit in escapism. Even so, I have to admit that’s been harder and harder to do. Video games continue to grow into their maturity (no matter how kicking and screaming some game fans may be) and that tangential growth brings with it almost a reminiscence of reality we may not have desired in our escapism. By themselves, such things are not inherently bad by any means, but it can weigh on an already heavy heart.
Such was my mindset when Circles found its way to me. The way in which the puzzles come together to create a hypnotic rhythm makes it stand out not only in my mind, but among contemporaries in this genre. When playing the game, it almost feels like I’ve entered a meditative state that allows me to reset my own mind. That rhythm helps me complete puzzles in seemingly quicker time, which sounds counter productive. Why would a puzzle game become less difficult as it went on? Well, because Circles isn’t really about challenge as much as it is an exercise in meditation. Truly, this a game created to be relaxing and enjoyable, in order to impart a sense of peace upon the player.
I’m not quite sure that was the intent of the creator of Circles, but I’m grateful all the same for it.
Developer: Illusive Games
Format: PC (reviewed), Mac
Released: February 17th, 2017
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