Circa Infinity

The final quarter of each year is often when the most important games are released. Unfortunately, the metric used for “importance” is sometimes based on the number appended to the game’s title. For those of us thoroughly disillusioned with this pattern, 2015 offered a handful of pre-emptive antidotes in the past month or two, including the delightful Circa Infinity. It is the antithesis of the bloated, stagnant gameplay and bland aesthetics of the AAA sphere; it’s a wildly original, sharply designed challenge for the hands, and a mesmerizing treat for the senses.

With their hyperbole and marketing buzzwords, official descriptions are rarely the most accurate summary of a game’s content, but that’s not the case here. Circa Infinity’s Steam page defines it as a “brain-melting circular platformer with a pulse-pounding soundtrack,” and I can’t think of a more perfect explanation. To elaborate on the phrase “circular platformer,” imagine a version of Super Hexagon with the abstraction dialled back about 50%. Instead of controlling a tiny triangle attempting to escape a geometric obstacle course, the player controls a nameless human attempting to reach the centre of an ever-expanding ringed target. Each ring contains either a triangular slice or floating bubble (depending on what side of the circumference you’re on) that can be used to advance to the next layer, and these goals are reached using simple platforming mechanics like jumping and ducking.

It’s all controlled using three buttons – left, right, and jump/duck – but that’s where the simplicity ends. The path inward is guarded by a variety of demonic creatures, including flying ones that only move while the player is airborne, and extra-tall ones that exist across multiple layers. Since each layer is a largely identical circle, level design in Circa Infinity is dictated solely by enemy placement, and the result is deceptively brilliant. Since the enemies have no AI beyond binary states and are arranged into bite-sized layers, avoiding them doesn’t feel like a straight action-platformer or puzzle-platformer, but an ideal middle ground between the two.

While the balance tips gradually in favour of puzzle as more and more confusing mechanics are introduced (a second simultaneous protagonist and colour-sensitive exits, to name a couple), the game consistently manages to excite the emotional part of the brain while stimulating the analytical part. Curiously, while there are no explicit rhythm elements as in Super Hexagon, after a few hours of play (especially when aiming for fast completion times), players will find themselves unconsciously tapping into an underlying pulse. Matching enemy movements and recognizing exploitable patterns are essential skills in Circa Infinity, and continually executing them at such high speeds transforms the experience from merely “entertainment” into “trance-like obsession.”

Further contributing to this sensation are the game’s intoxicating aesthetics. Arrays of surreal creatures and whirling geometry dancing in unnatural lockstep form some of the most effectively hallucinogenic scenes I’ve ever witnessed. And while other games with similar aspirations convey psychedelia with cheap rainbow palettes, Circa Infinity achieves it with precise composition – reserving colour for gameplay features like danger indication and late-game puzzle mechanics. Throw in some informative sound design and a vivid electronic soundtrack that somehow never feels repetitive, and you have a recipe for an intensely focused audiovisual experience.

I know it’s clichéd to compare bizarre presentations to drug trips, but here, the parallel is strongly invoked solely through lack of any alternative context. Given the substantial metaphor material inherent in the gameplay, the fact that there is no narrative is admittedly disappointing. However, with no narrative comes no narrative restrictions, and with a primary theme of “Let’s see how trippy a game can be,” developer Kenny Sun was able to explore a range of playable illustrations of a trip going sour. While the common enemies can indeed be described as demonic, their appearance is still rather cartoonish. Meanwhile, boss fights regularly involve human faces with shockingly creepy animations and audio. Whether you consider this to be inconsistent tone or intentional contrast, the result is the same: a bold, memorable experiment in sensory assault.

What few problems Circa Infinity has are challenge-related. With similar designs and a uniform colour palette, it’s difficult to differentiate some enemy types at a glance, which creates an unfortunate trial-and-error effect on some layers. Furthermore, later levels can be so complicated that the path through each layer may take a few seconds to untangle – seconds you won’t have if the enemies are in motion. Interestingly, one point that could have been a severe fault – the inability to select whether moving clockwise is accomplished by pressing left or right – was changed during my playthrough after I requested it on the Steam forums. With that change in place, the controls are essentially perfect thanks to their simplicity and precision.

Games as LSD alternatives are nothing new, but Circa Infinity is in the upper echelon of the category. It remembers that weirdness is not a substitute for discipline, and so tempers its abstract presentation with immaculate level design and a blazing tempo. The outcome is at once a striking artistic vision, a viscerally and intellectually engaging product, and a frontrunner for best indie game of the year.